Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Arms Deal Controversy a Sad Microcosm of U.S.-Bahrain Relations

As if there were not already enough domestic and international scrutiny making life (not to mention neutrality) difficult for Bahrain's BICI, the United States via its inept legislature has succeeded in adding more, by making the proposed U.S.-Bahrain arms sale conditional on its findings. The latter will be revealed privately to King Hamad and presumably others on October 30 and thereafter publicly (see this report from the BBC's Frank Gardner).

The WSJ piece linked above calls the delay a "partial victory"; of course, this is true only in the sense that delaying being stabbed in the face for an hour or two is also a "partial victory." Whatever "victory" there is here stems only from the delay itself--the diplomatic slap on the wrist from the U.S.--rather than from any hope that the deal will not eventually go through.

In the first place, the BICI is at bottom a U.S. initiative. (I have it on good information that the ruling family had first proposed a Bahraini-staffed inquiry that was rejected by U.S. diplomats on grounds that it would be viewed as inherently biased. King Hamad was personally convinced of the BICI arrangement.) In the second place, absent a bigger U-turn than the ones perpetrated by Qatari drivers, the results of the BICI's investigation are essentially now public knowledge, between Bassiouni's infamous Reuters interview in August and comments made just this week on Chicago public radio. Said simply: there's no need to wait until October 30 to find out the results of the BICI investigation.

In fact, in an online exclusive, we here at Religion in Politics in Bahrain have obtained an early copy of the secret BICI final report, which we post here for your benefit:

Don't ask how we managed to obtain it.

Despite the futility of the temporary delay, however, this entire arms deal hullabaloo is quite instructive in representing a perfect microcosm of U.S.-Bahraini relations and the various, disparate actors at play. We may start on the Bahraini side.

Moderate Government and Supporters

The basic strategy here is to spin any actual or perceived U.S. criticism in a positive light, and to find some way to refocus the discussion away from domestic politics to some sort of international intrigue, presumably involving Iran and its efforts to destabilize the country. If possible, it is useful to locate a sentiment or better yet quotation from some American official lending support to this "look at Iran!!" line of argument. As opposed to the Crazy Government and Supporters camp, however, there is no attempt here to claim that the U.S. with its criticism is attempting to overthrow the Bahraini government, threaten the Arab Gulf more generally, or occupy and/or oppress Arabs everywhere.

With its short, hysterical headlines constructed from out-of-context quotations, the Gulf Daily News is a great representative of this camp. Rather than focus on the facts of the matter--the delay of the arms sale--today's GDN ran with a two (2) word quotation from a visiting U.S. congressman (whom we'll get to later) combined with a healthy dose of Iran-hysteria:

Government Crazies and Supporters

As noted already, the strategy here among the government crazies is fundamentally different than that of the moderates. Whereas the latter attempt to distract attention away from negative developments, the former actively acknowledge them with the purpose of connecting them to some larger Western or foreign conspiracy against Bahrain. To wit, we have yesterday's column from Al-Watan's Yusif Al Bin Khalil decrying the "extremist" "anti-Bahrain trend in the USA":

And I'm sure if one scrolled through the pro-government forums one would find like-minded sentiment galore.

U.S. Government

Yet, even more than illustrate the difference between Bahrain's own political factions, the present arms deal episode reveals the extent to which internal U.S. government divisions (known more euphemistically as "checks and balances") complicate the United States' relationship with Bahrain, among other countries. The immediate cause of the arms sale delay revolves around a clash of sorts between the State Department and a couple of Democratic senators. The State Department's official response to the latter, who have been raising a stink in the Senate lately on the topic of the Bahraini arms sale, is below:

The conflict is essentially that Senators Wyden et al. don't like the idea of the Bahraini government firing U.S.-provided anti-tank missiles into the camps at Pearl Roundabout, while the State Department is evidently comfortable with this. Otherwise it is difficult to interpret the latter's spokesman, Victoria Nuland, who said on Friday:
"This sale is designed to support the Bahraini military in its defence function, specifically in hardening the country against opposition groups and potential attack or nefarious activity by countries like Iran."
Well, I suppose deploying TOW-equipment Humvees is ONE way of "hardening the country against opposition groups." The State Department might also consider offering the Bahraini government supersonic Ramjet missiles in case the opposition ever gets hold of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier with an AEGIS Ballistic Missile Defense System. Oh, wait, that's right: they don't even have BB guns.

Indirectly involved, moreover, is the Defense Department, for whom the significance of a few additional Humvees and TOW missiles is not that these will somehow help "defend Bahrain"--I think its defense is probably in pretty good shape with a 69-acre American naval base a half-hour outside the capital--but that it will help ensure continued military cooperation, in particular continued assurance that its basing arrangements do not fall victim to one of those "bureaucratic mix-ups" for which Bahrain is notorious.

Apart from the obvious conflicts of interest between the U.S. Congress, State, and DoD, moreover, we also now have conflicting messages emanating from at least the first of these institutions, in the form of random U.S. congressmen with little to no knowledge of Middle East or Gulf politics visiting Bahrain and saying stupid things.

Providing the fodder for the GDN's aforementioned "Iran to Destroy the GCC" story, Democratic Representative Eni F. H. Faleomavaega is quoted as saying during "a lecture on Bahrain's importance at the Alumni Club in Adliya,"
"Iran's aim is not just to rule Bahrain, but to destroy the GCC alliance. ...

"Since its inception in 1981 the GCC countries have been a thorn in Iran's side....

"If Iran succeeds in splitting off even one country in the GCC states, in my opinion the alliance will disappear as its member states are picked off one by one."

And where, might you ask, does Representative Eni F. H. Faleomavaega's GCC politico-military analysis credentials come from? Why, from his position as "former chairman of the US House Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on Asia and the Pacific"--Asia and the Pacific, that is, because he is actually a NON-VOTING DELEGATE to the House of Representatives from AMERICAN SAMOA, which for Bahraini readers is a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean which, much like Bahrain, was thought useful as a base for U.S. naval operations.

Thus the case of Representative Faleomavaega is apparently the inverse of that of Sarah Palin, whose familiarity with Russo-American relations stemmed famously from Alaska's proximity to Russian Siberia. Faleomavaega's expertise on Bahrain, then, follows from the reverse principal: that his home is as far as geographically possible from Bahrain (not to mention that he is also as uncongressional as possible while still technically being a part of congress).

No doubt Faleomavaega was convinced by Khalifah bin Salman's impassioned address to the visiting delegation in which he "stressed the importance of dialogue – as a strategic choice – and the protection of human rights and liberties as the cornerstone of Bahrain’s reform policies."

In sum, this month's arms deal controversy is a great illustration of the intricacies of the U.S. relationship with Bahrain. Bahraini government opponents must be content with a "partial victory" that in fact is merely a delayed defeat; moderate supporters fall back into the cognitive dissonance of a skewed interpretation of the U.S. position; and government crazies ring the alarm bells on the impending American amphibious assault of Bahrain. On the American side, confusion and mixed messages reign, with the result that, despite a lot of huffing and puffing, no policy positions actually change. Unfortunately, it seems to be a system that works for everybody.

Update: A truly mind-bending photo(shop) of plain-clothed 'Ali Salman and Mahmud Ahmedi Najad has just arrived in my inbox.

Update 2: The Bahrain Mirror in running a story (in Arabic) summarizing the current state of expectations surrounding the BICI report, along with suggestions for making it more forceful than most people (apart from our commentor 1st Anon) assume it will be.

And in tactical news, the Feb. 14 folks have organized a new "operation," dubbed Operation Arrows of Dignity, which is an apt name given the following instructional photograph posted in the forum thread announcing it:

There area in question, if you can't tell, is the huge roundabout next to the Seef Mall, which protesters are planning to occupy Pearl Roundabout-style starting on Saturday, which marks the opening of some sort of international jewelry exhibition at the nearby Bahrain Convention Center. The U.S. Embassy is already warning citizens against going anywhere near the Seef Mall, which the government will likely have to blow up (where are the TOW missiles when you need them!?) if the opposition succeeds in occupying the roundabout.

As indicated on the map above, the main reason organizers have hit on this roundabout is that, unlike the Pearl Roundabout which is out in the middle of nowhere, the Seef Roundabout abuts three different Shi'a-dominated areas--Jidhafs/Sanabis; al-Daih/al-Musalla; and Karbabad/Karanah--the latter being less than a few hundred yards away.

The problem, of course, is that if I can find out about this attempt to storm the Seef Roundabout then so can everyone in the Bahrani Interior Ministry, not to mention in even more unseemly services. If the Feb. 14 people were very clever, they would do a double deke and show up on Friday instead--say, right before Friday prayer when no one is looking. The Bahraini government is lucky I am not an opposition commander!

Update 3: Sh. Khalid is channeling his inner child and telling Obama in a WSJ interview to "stand up to Iran" for its fake assassination plot, which is now inspiring even more sensational stories based on "unnamed sources" about the growing belligerence of Iran's al-Quds Force, which is reportedly now teaming up with Burmese human trafficking rings to target the Bolivian chargé d'affaires in London.

Update 4: Big update. As alluded to by several commentors, the BICI report due date has rather suddenly been pushed back nearly a month to November 23, purportedly due to the sheer volume of complaints and testimonies. Yet many have interpreted the step as a tacit admission that the original report due an a week's time would have disappointed those not only in the opposition but more importantly in White House, perhaps so much so (the logic goes) as to jeopardize Bahrain's arms purchase from the U.S. I plan to write more on this topic tomorrow, so for now I'll leave it at that.

Sh. 'Isa Qasim spared no words in last Friday's sermon, whose main lesson (coming a day after the death execution of al-Qaddafi) was that all dictators will meet his fate. From the Iranian-based Ahl al-Bayt:
“The dark end and the murder of the ousted Ghaddafi sends a clear message to all dictators and reminds them that the dictators era would expire at the end of the day,” Sheikh Isa Qassim, the most senior Bahraini shia leader said in his Friday speech.

Bahrain’s opposition Party Al-Wefaq spiritual leader said “despotic regimes should take lessen from his [Gaddafi’s] fate and should know that they will come up with the same destiny; so, if they don’t want to be cursed and damned by nations, they should think of their own people’s interest and step up efforts to meet their demands.”

Sheikh Qassim castigated women’s detention by the ruling regime of Bahrain and said “Bahraini prisons are full and the government has become so rude that freedom-seeker women are incarcerated and separated from their children.”
The video (via al-Wifaq's YouTube channel):

Finally, I've come across an interesting blog post detailing the various "arts and crafts" of the Bahrain revolution, including shoes made with rubber bullets, things made with tear gas canisters, etc. You might want to check it out.


  1. Sorry mate. U are sooo way off on the BICI being US-inspired. Better check your sources! All will come out after report and follow-up. It is not the end of the road on the HR issues when BICI reports. The CAH investigations will continue and other parties are currently engaged. You and I will have a lot to chew over in coming months, I think the bandwagon is just stocking up! Bahrain better brace itself. Human rights violations are going to be what people remember us for.

  2. Justin have you fallen victim to the iranian agenda?

  3. As usual, a very great analysis and well-written. I also have been inclined to believe the BICI really is US-inspired.

    A quick question Justin, do you know of any historical example where a so-called "independent" investigation commission has been exposed to be a fake one established to play with an inspired agenda?

  4. As usual, a very great analysis and well-written. I also have been inclined to believe the BICI really is US-inspired.

    A quick question Justin, do you know of any historical example where a so-called "independent" investigation commission has been exposed to be a fake one established to play a part with the inspired agenda? ***

  5. @Anon: Which Iranian agenda? No, I have not been assassinated by Iranian-American citizens working in concert with Mexican druglords, if that's what you're asking.

    @2nd Anon: I didn't mean to suggest that the BICI was conceived, arranged, etc. by the U.S. My point was that (again, from what I've heard) the original suggestion from Bahrain's side was a commission led by "independent" Bahrainis, which got a lot of pushback from U.S. officials, and King Hamad in particular was convinced of the BICI setup.

  6. Great Post "as-always" Justin,

    Just one quick reminder, when are going to change this blinding color of your blog. I usually need 10 mins after I close this page to recover my eyes.

  7. Mr.Justin,

    It would be nice if you included your hypothesis as to why the BICI was delayed.

    Thank and good work.

  8. Hello Justin,

    According to HR activist @MohdMaskati his "source" tells him the BICI report was delayed purposely for political reasons to avoid it affecting the USA decision to sell arms.

    What do you think?


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