Among the more telling geopolitical episodes in the story of the February 14 uprising was the case of Ludovic Hood, the unfortunate political officer at U.S. Embassy Manama who was yanked from Bahrain (if only a few months early) in May 2011 after coming under attack, along with his family, from pro-government groups for his purported "collaboration" with demonstrators. His crime: to offer Krispy Kreme doughnuts to protesters who had gathered outside the American Embassy in Zinj to decry continued U.S. support for the then-beleaguered Al Khalifa family.
Thus was the U.S. diplomatic position caught, then as now, awkwardly between two extremes, neither of which it could satisfy. Its support for the Bahraini government is at once too much for the opposition, a sellout to the principles of democracy and human rights, and too little for many in the government and its more ardent supporters, evidence of duplicity both in Bahrain and the wider Gulf region with respect to Iran vis-a-vis the Arab states.
Over the ensuing months, this rare consensus between government and opposition would find expression on both sides of the political aisle. Pro-government groups, sponsored to varying extents by the Royal Court, launched public and sustained campaigns against President Obama, against the unholy U.S.-Iran-Hizballah-Al-Wifaq alliance, against the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain, against U.S. NGOs, and, in October 2011, against the newly-nominated Ambassador Thomas Krajeski in the form of a mass petition.
For their part, opposition groups gave a more half-hearted response, organizing an American flag-burning (and -stomping) day in January 2012, for example. Yet the anti-American sentiment never really caught on even among the radical youth movements, presumably because they had more pressing battles to fight with riot police, and perhaps because, in the end, they still had more confidence in the U.S.'s will and ability to press for reform than that of other regional and international actors. Indeed, it is notable that in the two-plus years since the uprising began, there has been no notable protest activity at the most high-profile symbol of American power in Bahrain, the naval base in Juffair, which is after all located alongside a predominantly Shi'i village.
As for Hood, the U.S. Embassy of course denied sending him home early as a result of the threats against him. Yet the case was plain enough, and one can therefore not help but wonder what will be State's response to the ongoing (political) assault on the present U.S. Ambassador Thomas Krajeski, who if not threatened by physical harm is posed with perhaps an even greater danger: that of utter non-cooperation on the Bahraini side. The tone of this debate one may glean from an anonymous May 29 commentary in the Gulf Daily News. Titled "The arrogance of a 'diplomat,'" it begins, with reference to an alleged citizen petition to be sent to President Obama,
Let's just call it 'interesting' that an apparently large number of Bahraini citizens want the President of the United States, a veritable ally, to instantly remove from their soil, the United States Ambassador to Bahrain. ...A separate report from today's GDN offers a bit more information about the petition, which may or may not be the same as an open letter published earlier this week by Sunni groups angered by a badly-timed visit to the home of Sh. 'Isa Qasim by the U.S. envoy to the Organization of Islamic Co-operation. How badly timed? It took place on Friday, the same day as a much-publicized mass protest in support of the cleric; and, moreover, it is claimed, on the same day that the envoy had planned to meet with Sunni groups before canceling the appointment.
As a petitioning letter states, "he has lost the confidence of the people of Bahrain", to act as a trustworthy go-between and as such is judged to be doing damage to the (otherwise) warm diplomatic ties that happily exist between the two countries. ...
A letter moreover, which is allegedly known to many, and presumably sanctioned at high levels! These matters are not taken lightly. ...
According to reports, the Ambassador has courted the opposition groups - a perfectly acceptable diplomatic foray, but in a manner seen as "prejudicial and unfair". ...
But the point is that the Ambassador himself 'has become the story', in an adverse way, and that seldom augurs well for bilateral relations.
According to the GDN, organizers of the campaign are calling for a formal rebuke by the Foreign Ministry as well as a protest in front of the Embassy in Zinj to be attended by, among others, members of parliament. Until now, authorities have disallowed such protests by Sunni groups (demonstrators have had to be content with the highway adjacent to the compound), so it will be interesting to see whether this policy changes.
Moreover, I'm told that Crown Prince Salman is scheduled to be in Washington next week to attend "top level" meetings. Notwithstanding the U.S.'s post-uprising support for Sh. Salman, and indeed the fact that it is precisely this support that can explain much of the present backlash against Krajeski and U.S. policy in Bahrain, one wonders whether the Ambassador's ongoing troubles nonetheless will be raised by the Crown Prince. At a time when the British Ambassador enjoys essentially unfettered access to King Hamad and others among the ruling elite, and is closely involved with the only real (if presently stalled) political process ongoing in Bahrain, the U.S.'s continued lack of diplomatic access and indeed diplomatic leverage is a liability not only for it but for its closest ally Sh. Salman. At some point, the latter may not wish to continue going down with a sinking ship.
The problem, one senses, and the factor that distinguishes the present controversy from that of 2011, is that the attack on Ludo Hood and American policy at that time was born of fear and a position of relative political weakness and uncertainty. Now, one has the impression that the case is rather the opposite: that Bahrain, now secured in its domestic and, thanks in large part to the British, international position, need no longer be so attentive to the pressure brought to bear by its other Western patron. Or perhaps Bahrain feels it has already called the U.S. President's bluff.
More generally, one wonders if this same cause might also help account for the government's relative willingness today to engage in political "dialogue" with opposition societies and other actors (inefficacious though it is), something it had eschewed for the better part of two years. One interpretation is that the state decided, or came under increasing pressure by citizens who had decided, that the initial security-centric approach simply wasn't leading to a solution and must be accompanied by a complementary political process.
An alternative view is that the state's change in strategy is not primarily a reflection of a new ideological orientation or a shift to a more moderate position, but a reflection of its newfound confidence vis-a-vis the opposition, the various Sunnis groups that seemed for a time to pose a potentially confounding political dilemma, and the international community. Whereas previously the state may have been reluctant to re-engage politically because it was not sure that it could maintain control over the process, this worry seems to have faded.
Of course, the two interpretations are not mutually exclusive. The rumored announcement in the coming weeks of a new Sunni youth movement may offer a useful opportunity to observe the state's strategic thinking.
Update: It seems that Bahrain's Salafis are still busy fighting the infidels in Syria. Following recent reports of the "martyrdom" of the son of the imam of the Al-Nusuf mosque (who incidentally is now calling upon members of the Bahraini armed forces to spend their summer vacation fighting the jihad in Syria), today pro-government groups are reporting the death of "the second Bahraini martyr." Others are promoting charities to fund the Bahraini "mujahidin."
Update 2: In the wake of last night's explosion/bombing in Bani Jamra in which seven policemen were injured, two critically, Ambassador Krajeski has personally issued a statement "on violence in Bahrain." It "condemn[s] this attack on police" and "urge[s] all parties to do everything in their power to prevent further violence." If that isn't enough of a veiled reference to al-Wifaq, it concludes by saying, "It is incumbent upon all segments of Bahraini society to support and participate in the National Dialogue, condemn acts of violence and incitement, and to contribute to a climate conducive for reconciliation."
Update 3: For the first time that I can remember, and I've been getting these messages since 2006, the American Embassy in Manama has issued a "security message to U.S. citizens" of a seemingly serious nature. The operative part warns,
Extremist elements of certain opposition groups have conducted surveillance on U.S. persons and locations where U.S. persons are known to reside and/or spend leisure time, including locations associated with night-life activities. These facilities and locations include, but are not limited to, the U.S. Embassy, the Naval Support Facility, the Bahrain School and American Alley.Update 4: On the subject of U.S. ambassadors to Bahrain, and in case you missed this as I did, a Foreign Policy article from April by former American envoy (2001-2004) Ronald E. Neumann. It is titled, sans any sarcasm, "Our Friends in Manama."
We have no further information regarding the precise purpose of this surveillance activity, nor any information as to whether it may be used in any future threat to U.S. persons or interests, and if so, what the timing, target, location, or method of such a threat would entail.
Update 5: The Bahrain Mirror relays reports from the Internets of the death of a fifth Bahraini fighter in Syria. What happens when/if these guys come back to Bahrain?
Update 6: Sh. Salman visits Washington, meets with senior Defense Dept. leaders, U.S.-Bahrain defense cooperation hailed. Sound familiar?