December 7, 2011

What Next in Bahrain? More U.S. Silence

After successfully delaying a proposed arms shipment until the release of Bahrain’s “Independent Commission of Inquiry” (BICI), Senator Ron Wyden has made sure to keep his low-wattage spotlight on the island nation. Speaking at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington D.C., the Senator articulated a red-line that few U.S. officials are willing to go near.

“Imagine if everyone in Congress had kept quiet and this arms sale had been completed,” Wyden asked his audience in Kenney Auditorium. “What kind of message would this have sent the world or to the people aspiring for freedom and democracy? America should NOT be rewarding brutal regimes with arms. It’s that simple.”

The Obama administration has yet to process Bahrain’s latest shipment of arms (joint-training with Oakland police is another story), but a reward-based media blockade remains in effect after the BICI’s release. Treated as an afterthought throughout the Arab revolutions, U.S. officials again turned their backs on Bahrain as they concentrated on Egypt, Syria and Pakistan’s latest blowup. The White House praised King Hamad’s inquiry and urged him to follow through on proposed reforms, a message designed to reduce U.S. culpability in Bahrain.

Little - if anything - has changed in the two weeks since King Hamad received his BICI in Manama’s Royal Occasions Hall. Confidence quickly dropped after the inquiry’s release, protesters continue to battle government forces in a running low-intensity conflict, and Shia opposition groups such as Al Wefaq and Waad remain marginalized in the political process.

Nabeel Rajab recently arrived in Washington to spread awareness of Bahrain’s environment. The head of Bahrain’s Human Rights Organization wasn’t invited to any State Department meeting and only spoke briefly to Gayle Smith, senior director for democracy in Obama’s National Security Council. Thus Rajab settled for media organs to disseminate his message, and Foreign Policy’s attempt to maintain neutrality - “Is US on Wrong Side of Bahrain?” - rapidly descends into redundancy.

“What I have realized is that there's a difference between the way the American government and the American people look at the Arab uprisings or the Arab revolution. I have received great support from American civil society, human rights groups, etc., in support of the Bahraini revolution. But that is totally different than the position of the United States government, which has disappointed many people in the Gulf region. And they have seen how the U.S. has acted differently and has different responses for different countries.”

Rajab’s interview offers a clear, sensible warning to U.S. policymakers attempting to navigate Bahrain’s uprising: support genuine democratic reform or risk total regime change. While many Sunni Bahrainis and external observers fear an Iranian takeover if the Shia opposition receives greater political representation, Rajab’s message is free of Tehran’s interference. He is genuinely trying to assist the Obama administration in diffusing Bahrain’s crisis and creating a stable democracy.

“There is full support for revolutions in countries where [the U.S. government] has a problem with their leadership,” Rajab observes, speaking the minds of many Arab protesters, “but when it comes to allied dictators in the Gulf countries, they have a much softer position and that was very upsetting to many people in Bahrain and the Gulf region. This will not serve your long strategic interest, to strengthen and continue your relations with dictators and repressive regimes.”

“Those dictators will not be there forever. Relationships should be maintained with people, not families.”

Rajab refutes the Obama administration's statements for what they are: lip service to Bahraini protesters and concealer for King Hamad. These statements (what few there are) “have no impact on the ground because the government was not really being forced to listen...” When asked whether he sees the administration's encouragement to reform as a positive sign, Rajab replies, “The U.S. is more influential in Bahrain than the United Nations. If they are serious about something, they could do it.”

“This government has to be told that their relationship with the United States is not a green light to commit crimes, because that's how it is understood by the government. And no one in the United States has told them, no, it's not like that.”

Rajab’s interpretation of the oppositional sentiment towards Washington is disturbing on a collective level. Despite losing their trust in the Obama administration’s declared altruism, Bahraini protesters remain on the milder side of the revolutionary spectrum. Popular calls for King Hamad’s downfall did erupt on February 14th, but the opposition movement as a whole has gradually progressed from political reform to regime change. Bahrain’s opposition has no plan to close America’s base in Manama. Other movements began with regime change and went from there - pushing Washington directly into their cross hairs. Rajab’s sentiments have been amplified throughout the Arab world, to a level beyond prerevolutionary anti-American sentiment.

“This is the image of the United States in our country: that this superpower supports dictators and doesn't want democracy in our region, because they [are] told that democracy would not serve their interests.”

The question posed by Rajab’s presence in Washington transcends Bahrain: America continues to dwell on the wrong side of history in Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain, and is treading dangerously close to Syria’s counter-revolution. A more cohesive response to Libya has only highlighted America’s double-standard. Rajab’s message is equally applicable on a regional level: “this is where the United States needs to speak, to tell them not to waste this opportunity to create real reform.”

America may be able to survive on the wrong side of the Arab revolutions, but its power in the region stands to increase by cooperating with pro-democracy movements.

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