Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Ambassadors for Hire

Given the State Department's own recent negative evaluation of current U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain Thomas Krajeski, which of course only reinforced the views of many Bahrainis, perhaps it is no surprise that a former American envoy should seize the opportunity to jump back into the diplomatic spotlight -- and potentially pocket a bit of money for his new consulting firm in the process.  Just as President Clinton remains a more popular figure among ordinary Americans (and certainly Arabs) than Bush or Obama, representing as he does the "good old days" of a strong economy and relative security, so too does former Ambassador Adam Ereli seem to symbolize the less complicated diplomacy and geopolitics of the pre-Arab Spring period.

Now vice-chairman of the Washington-based PR firm Mercury, Ereli is fresh off a tour last week of Qatar, where he weighed in on what he euphemistically called the "family spat" between GCC member states.  While he seemed to avoid overt criticism, he was not far from the Saudi position in highlighting the "unsustainability" of Qatar's foreign policy.  The Gulf Times reports,
He said that no country in an integrated world economy could afford to go it alone.

"In 2002, Saudi Arabia stopped sending aggregates that you need to make cement for concrete to Qatar.

"What if they were to do that today? What will that do to the multi-billion dollar worth of infrastructure that is being built today? It will be like turning off the water or turning off the electricity,” he said.
He concludes in a separate interview,
Qatar has to follow a proactive approach in defending its reputation and it must be persuasive in explaining to the people the thinking behind its policy and make a case for itself to generate its response to the critics.
If only there were a seasoned veteran of the region with close ties to neighboring states as well as to Washington!  But, in fact, one need not even rely on such insinuations, as Gulf Times piece states explicitly that Ereli "said his company Mercury could help Qatar build its image in the US":
“Having Al Jazeera America TV network was not enough to build a positive image,” Ereli observed.

“I think Al Jazeera America has a great future in the US but they’ve got to overcome some very entrenched negative attitudes to gain an audience,” he added.  
Gosh, what a helpful and totally non-opportunist guy that Ereli is!

Having already demonstrated his potential usefulness for the Qataris, then, Ereli next sprung into action on the other side of the GCC "family spat."  As today's Gulf Daily News front page suggests, Ereli made clear in nuanced fashion that he is "not a fan of US policy towards Bahrain right now," saying that the Obama Administration "pulled an Egypt" in Bahrain following the unrest of 2011. See, Qatar, these are the sorts of hard-hitting American colloquialisms you can expect when you roll with Ereli and Mercury!

Never mind, of course, that Ereli was ambassador in Bahrain until June 2011, and presumably had a hand in crafting the flawed U.S. response to the uprising of which he is such a detractor, given that there is no discernible difference between "US policy towards Bahrain right now" and US policy towards Bahrain when he was running the show.

In case you haven't yet had your fill of American catch-phrases, Ereli is quoted further as saying,
The reason I think we have pulled an Egypt is because we threw Hosni Mubarak under the bus in a very unseemly way.

I don't think we are doing that with the Al Khalifas [sic] and I don't think we will do that with the Al Khalifas [sic].

But let me be clear, if I was an Al Khalifa I'd be asking myself 'where's my friend in need?'

We [the US] beat up on them all the time, in public, for no reason and with no justification.
However, Ereli's remarks are probably on point in at least one respect.  The balance of violence in Bahrain between government and anti-government forces is far different today from what it was in February 2011 -- and it will be difficult for U.S. policymakers to ignore this fact with continued hedging along the reform-security continuum.

The pro-government group Citizens for Bahrain, which I'd not be surprised to discover is a product of Mercury itself given its fluent, Americanized English and prodigious production, recently spammed my Inbox with an article titled, "A year of Bahrain martyrs: 0 protestors, 6 police." The gimmick is that, according to al-Wifaq's own statistics on fatalities, between April 2013 and April 2014 the death toll has fallen entirely on the side of riot police.  (The protester deaths the group discounts as unsubstantiated or as having occurred while engaged in violence.)

Whatever the exact ratio, it is clear that the near-daily attacks on riot police are what dominate the headlines today on Bahrain, rather than continued (and thus from a media standpoint boring) coverage of political stagnation or repression.  Coverage of this year's Formula One race, for instance, which just concluded, seemed tilted far more toward actual race coverage than in previous years.  I guess the partial annexation of Eastern European countries doesn't hurt either.

From the state's perspective, of course, this is all welcome news.  If the unfortunate cost is a few lives of largely-non-national security personnel, then such is the political game.  Indeed, just a month ago King Hamad was in Pakistan for the first visit of a Bahraini head of state in 40 years, to discuss, among other things, "ways to increase export of Pakistani manpower to Bahrain."

Another casualty of the present focus on opposition violence is media coverage of another compelling story from last week, which is the untimely if predictable end of a parliamentary effort to quiz the Finance Minister over alleged financial irregularities.  The effort by MPs would have been the first public quizzing since the 2002 reinstatement of parliament, yet it has died a week after having been declared "invalid" on a procedural technicality.  In the words of one member, "We were on our way to make history but it seems history will have to wait because the government has managed, as usual, to get a ruling in its favour from a so-called independent body."  It is unclear for now at least how failures of U.S. policy toward Bahrain contributed to the outcome.

Update: Bahrain Watch has just released an article detailing Bahrain's PR contracts and relationships since the publication of the group's first "PR Watch" report in August 2012. Among the items noted in the press release is the following one of special relevant to this post:
US firm Mercury Public Affairs hired former US Ambassador to Bahrain Adam Ereli in September 2013. Shortly thereafter, Mercury’s Managing Director Morris Reid accompanied Ereli on a “listening tour” to Bahrain and other Middle East countries. Following his tour Ereli criticised the US government’s perceived failure to fully support the Bahraini government. Ereli reiterated his criticism in a recent interview. The Gulf Daily News reported that Reid had been “heavily involved in fostering trade links between the US and the Middle East, including Bahrain”. Reid previously served as a Managing Director for Washington DC PR firm BGR Group, which contracted with Bahrain’s government.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

An "Embassygate" to Overshadow GCCgate in Bahrain

The publication of a damning new State Department Office of the Inspector General audit into the operations of U.S. Embassy Manama has sparked what Brian Dooley has coined "Embassygate."  The 48-page report, which may or may not have been written by Dr. Salah al-Bandar, addresses all aspects of the mission's operation, yet the main takeaway has been what the Washington Times gleefully refers to as the "poor leadership" of Ambassador Thomas Krajeski. No, this isn't an April Fool's joke, etc. etc.

Such a finding is of course welcome and one imagines vindicating news to many Bahrainis, not least those from the pro-government side who, largely on account of his role in the Shi'ization of Iraq while serving there as a post-war adviser to Paul Bremer in 2003, never accepted Krajeski's appointment.  Such suspicion was of course confirmed for skeptics when the U.S. Embassy continued its wavering position on the question of political reform vs. political stability in Bahrain following his arrival, which was taken as further proof of his preference for the Shi'a.

As indicated by Dooley's scandalous title, Washington at least seems abuzz about the report, which I suppose is appropriate coming as it does from an U.S. institution.  Yet, among other things, the U.S.-based reporters seem to have little understanding of the background of the story.  A Washington Post blog post, for instance, carries the headline, "Bahrain official wants U.S. ambassador out 'immediately.'"  So, who is this official, one asks? 
[W]hen Abdullatif al-Mahmood, head of the National Unity Assembly (a political group that’s part of a Sunni-oriented pro-government political federation) demands the “immediate” recall of U.S. Ambassador Tom Krajeski, Gulf Daily News reported Monday, attention perforce must be paid.
Here the writer would have done well to follow his own advice, and perforce pay attention (a) to the definition of the word "official"; and (b) to the dozens of other times that Al Mahmud and other pro-government Sunnis have called for the recall and/or forced expulsion of the ambassador, including when they attempted to pass parliamentary legislation to that effect.  Remember this back in June 2012? No? I guess the Washington Post Google-machine is broken.

More fundamentally, as Brian Dooley points out, the interesting part of the State Department's report is not limited to what it says about Krajeski and other embassy operations, but includes also -- even more so -- the very explicit statement of the State Department's understanding of the U.S.-Bahrain relationship.  The report tells, "Bahrain's ongoing political crisis has forced the U.S. Government to strive for an effective balance between military objectives, reform, and human rights."

Notice the order of those three priorities.

Finally, as with the larger Arab Spring, one gets the sense that in Bahrain the U.S.'s initial optimism that some positive political change might come out of the uprising has given way to a pragmatic desire to go back to the status quo ante.  This is on most obvious display in Egypt, where the Obama Administration has made a complete u-turn in supporting the military government. Yet even the President's recent trip to Saudi Arabia had something of the same air, a mending of diplomatic fences by reassuring the one Arab ally most resistant to change that change was indeed not coming.

As Gary Sick outlines in a recent NYT piece on the "Obama Doctrine," in the face of comittments and challenges elsewhere, most notably in Asia, the U.S. has decided upon a "more modest strategy" for the Middle East.  Thus, if Krajeski "has done little to plan for the future of the diplomatic mission, is providing poor leadership to staff members and has earned the ire of the local population," as summarized by Bahrain's favorite U.S. newspaper the Washington Times, then the State Department has only its own indecision and lack of vision to thank for it.

Change is coming, however.  Recent reports talk of the ill-health (and worse) of Saudi King 'Abdallah, who was taking oxygen in his meeting with Obama.  The king also recently took the unprecedented step of preemptively appointing the next crown prince, Muqrin, by royal decree, fueling speculation of an imminent abdication.  The decree is likely aimed at avoiding a possible succession dispute owing to the latter's non-tribal lineage (his mother was a Yemeni slave of Ibn Sa'ud), for which reason some senior royals oppose his selection.  Indeed, the very royal order appointing Muqrin reads,
[S]upporting Our selection and that of Our Crown Prince for Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz [was] an overwhelming majority of more than three-fourths of the members of the Pledge-Allegiance Commission.
In other words, as one G2K member points out, one fourth of the senior princes -- eight or nine out of thirty-five or so -- presumably with-held their allegiance to Muqrin.

In this context, it is no secret that the U.S. is said to favor Muhammad bin Nayf for the eventual post of king, which, if reports of his relative "pragmatism" vis-a-vis the Shi'a have any truth, could have interesting implications for Bahrain.  Best known as Saudi's counter-terrorism chief and head of the program to "re-educate" citizens returning from (and, in the case of AQAP at least, often heading back to) jihad, it seems reasonable to think that Muhammad bin Nayf might hold a different view of the relative threats posed to the kingdom and region of Shi'a empowerment and (Sunni) religious radicalization.  (It doesn't hurt, probably, that he was the target of the first-ever assassination attempt on a member of the Al Sa'ud, carried out by AQAP, back in 2009.)

Arguably, Muhammad bin Nayf's fingerprints already are appearing in Bahrain.  The country has, reluctantly it seems, followed the Saudi/Emirati line in declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.  (Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmad has spent the past few days backtracking on comments made during a recent trip to Pakistan that seemed to contradict this view.) Now, Bahrain has adopted the Saudi stance in giving its foreign fighters -- some of which have included the (now-dead) children of prominent Salafis -- two weeks to return to the country or face prosecution.  And, yes, there's even a "special counseling program to assist [them]" upon their return.

Of course, to the extent he is interested in reorienting security policy toward Sunni rather than Shi'a political movements, Muhammad bin Nayf will be up against the Gulf- and increasingly U.S.-based anti-Iranian establishment, for whom the notion of Iranian "destabilization" of the U.S.'s Gulf allies is used as primary evidence of why it cannot be trusted to uphold its end of a nuclear bargain. 

Update: This piece in Al Jazeera America equating the GCC Peninsula Shield intervention in Bahrain to Russia's annexation of the Crimea has the Bahrainis riled up. Qatar MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD!!#@!

Update 2: An op-ed by Emile Nakhleh cuts through the "spin" of "pro-regime talking heads" to put into context the State Department audit.