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America's Bahrain Cop-Out

How the tiny kingdom strong-armed the president of the United States.

| Tue Mar. 15, 2011 5:37 PM EDT

Doughnuts Not Democracy

Last week, peaceful protesters aligned against Bahrain's monarchy gathered outside the US embassy in Manama carrying signs reading "Stop Supporting Dictators," "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death," and "The People Want Democracy." Many of them were women.

Ludovic Hood, a US embassy official, reportedly brought a box of doughnuts out to the protesters. "These sweets are a good gesture, but we hope it is translated into practical actions," said Mohammed Hassan, who wore the white turban of a cleric. Zeinab al-Khawaja, a protest leader, told Al Jazeera that she hoped the US wouldn't be drawn into Bahrain's uprising. "We want America not to get involved, we can overthrow this regime," she said.

The United States is, however, already deeply involved. To one side it's given a box of doughnuts; to the other, helicopter gunships, armored personnel carriers, and millions of bullets—equipment that played a significant role in the recent violent crackdowns.

In the midst of the violence, Human Rights Watch called upon the United States and other international donors to immediately suspend military assistance to Bahrain. The British government announced that it had begun a review of its military exports, while France suspended exports of any military equipment to the kingdom. Though the Obama administration, too, has begun a review, money talks as loudly in foreign policy as it does in domestic politics. The lobbying campaign by the Pentagon and its Middle Eastern partners is likely to sideline any serious move toward an arms export cut-off, leaving the US once again in familiar territory—supporting an anti-democratic ruler against his people.

"Without revisiting all the events over the last three weeks, I think history will end up recording that at every juncture in the situation in Egypt that we were on the right side of history," President Obama explained after the fall of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak—an overstatement, to say the least, given the administration's mixed messages until Mubarak's departure was a fait accompli. But when it comes to Bahrain, even such half-hearted support for change seems increasingly out of bounds.

Last year, the US Navy and the government of Bahrain hosted a groundbreaking ceremony for a construction project slated to develop 70 acres of prime waterfront property in Manama. Scheduled for completion in 2015, the complex is slated to include new port facilities, barracks for troops, administrative buildings, a dining facility, and a recreation center, among other amenities, at a price tag of $580 million. "The investment in the waterfront construction project will provide a better quality of life for our Sailors and coalition partners, well into the future," said Lieutenant Commander Keith Benson of the Navy's Bahrain contingent at the time. "This project signifies a continuing relationship and the trust, friendship and camaraderie that exists between the US and Bahraini naval forces."

As it happens, that type of "camaraderie" seems to be more powerful than the President of the United States' commitment to support peaceful, democratic change in the oil-rich region. After Mubarak's ouster, Obama noted that "it was the moral force of nonviolence, not terrorism, not mindless killing, but nonviolence, moral force, that bent the arc of history toward justice once more." The Pentagon, according to the Wall Street Journal, has joined the effort to bend the arc of history in a different direction—against Bahrain's pro-democracy protesters. Its cozy relationships with arms dealers and autocratic Arab states, cemented by big defense contracts and shadowy military bases, explain why.

White House officials claim that their support for Bahrain's monarchy isn't unconditional and that they expect rapid progress on real reforms. What that means, however, is evidently up to the Pentagon. It's notable that late last week one top US official traveled to Bahrain. He wasn't a diplomat. And he didn't meet with the opposition. (Not even for a doughnut-drop photo op.) Secretary of Defense Robert Gates arrived for talks with King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa to convey, said Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell, "reassurance of our support."

"I'm convinced that they both are serious about real reform and about moving forward," Gates said afterward. At the same time, he raised the specter of Iran. While granting that the regime there had yet to foment protests across the region, Gates asserted, "there is clear evidence that as the process is protracted—particularly in Bahrain—that the Iranians are looking for ways to exploit it and create problems."

The Secretary of Defense expressed sympathy for Bahrain's rulers being "between a rock and hard place" and other officials have asserted that the aspirations of the pro-democracy protesters in the street were inhibiting substantive talks with more moderate opposition groups. "I think what the government needs is for everybody to take a deep breath and provide a little space for this dialogue to go forward," he said. In the end, he told reporters, US prospects for continued military basing in Bahrain were solid. "I don't see any evidence that our presence will be affected in the near- or middle-term," Gates added.

In the immediate wake of Gates' visit, the Gulf Cooperation Council has conspicuously sent a contingent of Saudi troops into Bahrain to help put down the protests. Cowed by the Pentagon and its partners in the Arab lobby, the Obama administration has seemingly cast its lot with Bahrain's anti-democratic forces and left little ambiguity as to which side of history it's actually on.

Nick Turse is an historian, essayist, investigative journalist, the associate editor of TomDispatch.com, and currently a fellow at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute. His latest book is The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Verso Books). He is also the author of The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on Facebook. His website is NickTurse.com.

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