Monday, October 31, 2011

A Gulf NATO?: What the New U.S.-GCC Security Partnership Means for Bahrain


The biggest piece of Bahrain news since the previous post does not come from Bahrain at all, where, apart from random acts of violence and sabotage perpetrated presumably by would-be revolutionaries continuing to fight the good fight--including a Molotov cocktail thrown at the home of Sameera Rajab and motor oil thrown on roundabouts which continues to hold up traffic--not much seems to be going on in-country.

Sure, there was another "Right to Self-Determination" rally from the Feb. 14 folks, and 'Adel Flaifel's militia--er, "Military Society"--registration took place Sunday as scheduled. And of course al-Wifaq (or "Bahraini Hizballah") continues to get slammed in the pro-government press--e.g., here, here, here, here, and here. Finally, BICI chief Bassiouni has given a long interview with the Egyptian Al-Masri Al-Youm at the very end of which he states that "despite the few number of cases, it is clear that there was a systematic policy" of torture in Bahrain. So this is perhaps a sign of things to come.

But the real story comes via the New York Times, which reported over the weekend (sorry, I had things to do):
The Obama administration plans to bolster the American military presence in the Persian Gulf after it withdraws the remaining troops from Iraq this year, according to officials and diplomats. That repositioning could include new combat forces in Kuwait able to respond to a collapse of security in Iraq or a military confrontation with Iran. ...

With an eye on the threat of a belligerent Iran, the administration is also seeking to expand military ties with the six nations in the Gulf Cooperation Council — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. While the United States has close bilateral military relationships with each, the administration and the military are trying to foster a new “security architecture” for the Persian Gulf that would integrate air and naval patrols and missile defense. ...

“It’s not going to be a NATO tomorrow,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic negotiations still under way, “but the idea is to move to a more integrated effort.”
Enter Sh. Khalid, who it turns out was not in Washington so much for "a charm offensive" (as Foreign Policy portrayed the visit) but as the one being charmed:
“They’re worried that the American withdrawal will leave a vacuum, that their being close by will always make anyone think twice before taking any action,” Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, said in an interview, referring to officials in the Persian Gulf region.

Sheik Khalid was in Washington last week for meetings with the administration and Congress. “There’s no doubt it will create a vacuum,” he said, “and it may invite regional powers to exert more overt action in Iraq.”

He added that the administration’s proposal to expand its security relationship with the Persian Gulf nations would not “replace what’s going on in Iraq” but was required in the wake of the withdrawal to demonstrate a unified defense in a dangerous region. “Now the game is different,” he said. “We’ll have to be partners in operations, in issues and in many ways that we should work together.”

It's too bad the Times reporter didn't also solicit the opinion of Bahrain's Defense Minister, as the Marshall could have informed him that in fact the Bahrain uprising was "by all measures a conspiracy involving Iran with the support of the United States," which at least as of July 6 was his official position. This of course would have raised the possibility that the U.S. and its co-conspirator Iran are looking to "work together" with the Gulf states in order to combat the influence of... Iran, a paradox so deep that it would have caused the universe to explode (or, such as is predicted to occur on the upcoming date 11/11/11, open a portal to another universe).

In any event, I think the Bahraini government can stop worrying about the delayed U.S. arms sale, which I have a feeling now will somehow go through.

In case the profound irony of the present situation is not apparent, let's review: the United States government needs the help or at least the cooperation of the GCC countries to counteract a regional military imbalance that it itself has created. Thanks to the U.S.-led regime changes in Iraq and Afghanistan, an emboldened Iran is now exerting increased influence over neighbors that once served precisely to hold it in check. Indeed, Iraq is now viewed by Gulf countries as little more than an Iran Jr., dominated if not altogether controlled by Shi'a politicians and their friends across the border. (Just yesterday, for example, Bahrain extended its suspension of all Gulf Air flights to Iraq. And earlier this year GCC leaders rejected an Arab Summit planned to take place in Baghdad, arguing that the "atmosphere was not right" following high-level statements of support for Bahrain's uprising.)

It is difficult to know how far the Obama Administration's view of Iraq differs from this, but it cannot be happy with the fact that its surprise wholesale withdrawal from the country by year's end was largely a result of Shi'a politicians (and clerics, i.e. Muqtada al-Sadr) refusing to extend immunity to those soldiers and trainers who the U.S. wished to stay on. Having thus created its own monster, the U.S. is now looking for ways to contain it. Amazing.

So, apart from the fact that the Bahrainis are going to get their $53 million in TOW-equipped Hummers, what can we say about this post-Iraq security architecture in the Gulf, both as it relates to Bahrain and more widely?

The easiest immediate response to this story is something like: "Well, so much for democracy in Bahrain and in the Arab Gulf. The U.S. seems to have bought into this year's rampant Iranophobia [especially now that Iran has teamed up with the Mexican drug cartels!] and will never support the popular anti-government oppositions in the region. It will use this GCC non-NATO NATO to ensure the continuity of the Gulf regimes."

Except that--news flash--the United States was never going to support such movements in the first place, which would necessarily mean abandoning altogether the notion of monarchism in the Gulf. Further, its current military cooperation with each of the Gulf states (save perhaps for Oman) is already extensive. (Indeed, well before the events of February the American naval base in Bahrain was in the middle of a massive expansion more than doubling its size.)

The question, then, is really: what does the U.S. hope to gain from such a new "security architecture" that it does not have already?

About this one can only speculate, but I will refer to a post from April 20 in which I argued that perhaps the biggest change brought about by the "Arab Spring" was the GCC's increased cooperation, activism, and above all independence from the United States. I wrote then:
"the Arab Spring has set the stage for the emergence of a more unified, more vigorous, and more independent GCC under the leadership of Saudi Arabia, a political-cum-military alliance designed explicitly as a regional counterweight to Iran and its assumed proxy states in the Levant. Whether in its unprecedented intervention in Bahrain or, more recently, its conspicuous participation in air strikes in Libya, this revitalized GCC operates on the principle that, if they can no longer count on U.S. government support, perhaps they ought to start leaning more on each other."
Perhaps, then, the U.S.'s new "security architecture" is an attempt to reverse this trend, to reign in the newfound politico-military independence of the Gulf states--which has only increased since April via the proposed expansion of the GCC to include Morocco and Jordan, presumably for military/intelligence purposes--and bring them back into the U.S.-led fold. In this sense, a new U.S.-GCC alliance would be aimed primarily at trying to avoid a GCC-Iran confrontation rather than preparing for one, by helping to ensure that one or more Gulf states do not inadvertently start a conflict that they cannot finish.

Still, it is reasonable to expect that, in return for their increased military cooperation with the U.S. and the public backlash that tends to result, Gulf rulers will expect something in return. (The Times tells that a vote on the proposal is set to occur at the next GCC meeting in Riyadh in December.) Sure, they will get more military hardware and security guarantees. But will Gulf governments also demand more freedom to operate on the domestic front? Is Sh. Khalid (or, more to the point, King 'Abdallah) likely to have said, "Sure, we can probably help you out, but how about telling President Obama to lay off Bahrain in his speeches about democracy in the Middle East?"

Perhaps. But, again, such statements from Obama and Clinton, while nice, are immaterial. Real political change in Bahrain depends primarily on one thing only: the redistribution of influence and power among the various Al Khalifa factions. What Bahrain requires from the U.S. is not perfunctory statements but a concerted effort to help the king and crown prince regain the positions they lost since February, an initiative that will take Saudi cooperation as it will involve the relative sidelining of their favorite Al Khalifa, the prime minister.

The problem, of course, apart from the Saudi reluctance to budge at all on Bahrain in view of domestic repercussions, is that the other competitor to King Hamad's power represents the very institution that is likely to gain considerably from increased U.S. security cooperation, namely the military and its head Sh. Khalifah bin Ahmad (and the khawalid more generally). (This is assuming that by then he will have forgotten about the U.S.-Iranian conspiracy to overthrow his country.)

A nice opportunity to begin to try to do this, as I just wrote last week, is the BICI's report on human rights abuses during the post-February period. (If the next sentence doesn't make sense, then click on the previous link.) This is because such a move (a BICI "power play") would appear to be--and to some extent would be--the result of Bahrain's own domestic initiative rather than some U.S. or foreign machinations to alter the country's internal balance of power. As noted earlier, Bassiouni's admission reported today of systematic torture in Bahrain may be a positive hint in this direction. We shall see in a few weeks.

Finally, it is worth noting that this new Gulf "security architecture" is not a done deal. As mentioned above, GCC leaders are expected to vote on the initiative at next month's meeting in Riyadh. And to what extent can one expect members such as Oman and especially Qatar--states that have long maintained cordial relations with Iran--to sign up to a new alliance designed explicitly against it? One imagines that the Qataris in particular cannot be too excited about the proposal. In the first place, their main source of state revenue comes from a massive gas field in the north of the country that is shared with Iran, the continued exploitation of which depends accordingly on maintaining those good relations.

More generally, the Arab Spring has witnessed a Qatar acting increasingly independently of other GCC members--in particular its big brother Saudi Arabia--and gaining no little international notoriety for it. Indeed, among the main political beneficiaries of the past year has been Qatar. (Incidentally, I have a FP Mideast Channel article to this effect that should appear sometime today.) Will its leaders be happy now to take a backseat once again to yet another U.S.- (and inevitably Saudi-) led initiative?

Update: A lot of text and no pictures make Homer go crazy. Here are a few nuggets to make up for it. The first: a video from your favorite Bahraini Shi'a thespians reenacting a police beating at a checkpoint in al-Rifa' (see here for background):


A flattering photo of King Hamad sent by an e-mailer:


And some Bahraini pro-governments tell 'Ali Salman that holding rallies in al-Budaiyi', Muharraq, or al-Rifa' is "a red line" (see Update 3 below). OoooooooooOoh.


Update 2: If one would believe this story in Al-Masri Al-Youm, perhaps the U.S.'s new Gulf "security architecture" includes an expanded GCC. Visiting Cairo apparently to woo the Egyptians away from Iranian influence, Bahraini FM Sh. Khalid is quoted as saying that "Egypt should be at the top of Arab countries to join the GCC over the coming period." I don't think Egyptians will be holding their breath.

Update 3: Political protest in Bahrain somehow seems to have devolved into vehicle-based acts of annoyance (such as the aforementioned oil poured on roundabouts) rather than actual demonstrations. Which is ironic because now that the weather is finally starting to get nice, people are remaining in their cars, whereas during the heat of summer they were attending weekly rallies. The shift probably has something to do with the lower likelihood of being shot while driving a car as compared to say, walking down the street or charging the Pearl Roundabout.

In any case, the newest of these "protests" is the "Manama Tsunami #3" planned for tomorrow, Thursday, which again is just an attempt to clog the roads with cars. (Evidently there is a standing order for a Manama Tsunami every Thursday. The fact that we have now reached the third iteration with no discernible results would seem to suggest that a new strategy may be in order.) The full schedule of activities for the week--dubbed "the week of destabilizing the regime's economy"; good luck with that-- is here:


Of course, regime supporters will not take this lying down. Pro-governments in the Sunni neighborhoods of Muharraq, al-Riffa', and al-Budaiyi' are organizing a counter-car-rally: "a blockade ... to stop the terrorists" from carrying out their evil plot to cause traffic disruptions. The effect of the counter-effort, presumably, will be to disrupt traffic even more--an appropriate parable of Bahraini politics. A full list of the (dozens of) intersections to be defended is here. This should turn out well.

In other news, the Manama Voice reports a "serious dialogue" between "the government" and "the opposition," presumably al-Wifaq, which the National Unity Gathering is already decrying. (Incidentally, the National Unity people are also claiming curiously to have sent a "delegation to foreign and Arab countries to meet with political party and civil society leaders.") According to the Bahrain Mirror, government and opposition sources are both "denying the existence of any dialogue between them," which is exactly what one would expect them to do in any event.

Update 4: For those following the BICI commission saga, see the following insights offered yesterday by an anonymous commenter.

5 comments:

  1. I'm curious about the picture of the king but it's linked directly to you email account so unless you're not planning to share it upload it somewhere else :P

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  2. Ah, right. Fixed. That's what I get for being lazy.

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  3. Does it feel like a curse that you did your dissertation on the only "failed" revolution?

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  4. Actually the dissertation was conceived (and researched) during 2008-2009 and doesn't focus at all on the uprising. In fact, the second paragraph of the introductory chapter reads:

    "The present work is not the story of that uprising—not, at least, in the immediate sense. It was conceived and mostly written long before protesters occupied the now-flattened Pearl Roundabout and renamed it 'Martyrs’ Square.'"

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  5. I can say that everything in Bahrain goes smoothly. Bahraini government took intitiative to ahve dialogues with the opposition but unfotunately they refures. GCC countries will not leave Bahrain alone in facing Iranian interference. May Allah save Bahrain and spread peace in all over the world.

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