Bahrain King Hamad al Khalifa visited President Vladimir Putin in Russia this week in a perfectly-timed reminder of how drastically the Obama administration has failed to handle relations with the small Gulf kingdom over the last five years.
Sunday, February 14 marks the fifth anniversary of the first mass protests against the repressive ruling family. President Mubarak had been forced from office in Egypt just a few days earlier, and it seemed more than possible that the Al Khalifa dictatorship in Bahrain, another key U.S. military ally, would fall just as quickly.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted in her book “Hard Choices” that “Bahrain, as the home base for the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf, was an exceptionally complicated case for us,” noting it was one of those places where “we’d always have to walk and chew gum at the same time,” meaning maintaining a healthy relationship with the repressive regime of a strategic ally while supporting the rights of its people to peacefully push for a change in government.
But over the last five years the Obama administration has failed to do either on Bahrain. Instead it responded with handwringing as the political opposition and leading human rights defenders were tortured and jailed, with any prospect of political reform or inclusive government swept from the table. Bahrain’s hardline prime minister — the king’s uncle — has been in office, unelected, for 45 years and shows no sign of budging.
A minority of protests in Bahrain have taken on a violent edge, and several policemen were killed last year. The government blames Iranian meddling. But the Gulf monarchy has chosen to respond to a perceived threat from Iran not with reform on the grievances that Tehran could exploit — including discrimination against the majority Shi’a community, torture, and denying peaceful dissent — but with repression. Washington is largely standing by as Bahrain intimidates its own people, and cows U.S. officials into silence.
King Hamad’s visit to Mr. Putin included discussion of enhanced military cooperation, another kick in the teeth to Washington just days after Russia’s bombing of Aleppo brought Syrian peace talks to a sudden halt, further damaging prospects for a settlement that the region and the world desperately need.
Bahrain is a “Major Non-NATO Ally” to the United States, but has proved a dangerously unreliable friend. During the last five years U.S. administration officials have been constantly vilified in Bahrain’s government-backed media. Senior State Department diplomat Tom Malinowski was kicked out of the country after meeting opposition leaders, and Rep. Jim McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat, denied entry to the kingdom. Last May King Hamad declined President Obama’s invite to a White House summit with other Gulf leaders, citing a previous engagement to a London horse show.
King Hamad’s regime has strung the U.S. government along for five years now, repeatedly deceiving the Obama administration with false promises of reform in exchange for military equipment, leaving U.S. officials looking like arms pushers to weapons addicts.
In June last year Bahrain released Ibrahim Sharif, one of the many peaceful opposition figures who had been in jail in 2011. He’s leader of the secular liberal Wa’ad political group, exactly the sort of moderate Washington needs to fight Bahrain’s increasingly polarized, sectarian tensions. Ten days later the State Department announced it was lifting the holds on selling arms to Bahrain’s military it had imposed in late 2011 in response to the regime’s violence against medics and other civilians. The State Department cited “meaningful progress on human rights” as justification for lifting the holds.
Within two weeks, Ibrahim Sharif was rearrested and put back in prison with other leading human rights and political activists, where he remains.
Thirty years ago I was working on the Hill researching possible sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime. The excuses we heard from the State Department on why it wasn’t tougher on its repressive ally then are the same thing we hear from it now — that progress is most likely to come from “moderates” within the regime, that “behind closed doors” diplomacy will get the best results, that “constructive engagement” is the right approach in dealing with dictators. Well, not if they’re clearly not listening it isn’t.
In the late 1980s Congress eventually passed bipartisan legislation over the wishes of the Reagan Administration to sanction South Africa, salvaging something of America’s reputation in the region. This year, bipartisan legislation in both houses of Congress, introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, and Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, in the Senate, aims to reinstate a ban on arms sales to Bahrain for weapons that can be used against protesters. It’s the sort of stand against dictatorships the United States should be taking.
After five years of being bullied by the ruling family of the smallest country in the Middle East, it’s time the United States stood up for itself and its values, and stopped rewarding an erratic dictatorship and an unreliable friend.
• Brian Dooley is director, human rights defenders at Human Rights First.