Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Bahrain Contra Iraq: Foreign-backed "Terrorism" vs. Indigenous "Uprising"

Bouncing around in my mind for a while now have been two big-picture thoughts related to Bahrain, which at some point soon hopefully I will have time to write about more formally than here.

One of these is the disparity in narratives regarding what's going on today in Iraq and the discussion -- to the extent that one still exists in the mainstream media -- surrounding the continued political deadlock in Bahrain, which seems likely to be reiterated soon in the form of yet another opposition boycott of parliamentary elections this fall.

Obviously, the ideology and tactics of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham have earned it few supporters, certainly not among governments, but one imagines also among ordinary people in Iraq and Syria.  Yet notwithstanding Western antipathy to the group, still the ongoing rebellion in Iraq has forced U.S. and other policymakers to engage very seriously with the longstanding grievances of Sunni citizens in particular -- so much so that President Obama has openly made American aid for the country contingent on substantive efforts to redress them.

On Friday, for instance, Obama is quoted in the Washington Post as saying,
So, any action that we make take to provide assistance to Iraqi security forces has to be joined by a serious and sincere effort by Iraq's leaders to set aside sectarian differences, to promote stability and account for the legitimate interests of all of Iraq's communities, and to continue to build the capacity of an effective security force. ...

So this should be a wake-up call. Iraq's leaders have to demonstrate a willingness to make hard decisions and compromises on behalf of the Iraqi people in order to bring the country together.
A sectarian group systematically marginalized from politics?  Security forces composed disproportionately and systematically of the politically-dominant sect?  A frustrated out-group largely oppositional to the government -- including a small minority of individuals willing to pursue even violence in order to rectify perceived discrimination in all aspects of society?

Why does that sound familiar?  Oh that's right -- that's a description of the status quo in Bahrain since (in the post-King Hamad period at least) 2002.

Except that whereas Iraq's Sunni community is recognized as having legitimate, domestically-rooted grievances owing to the retributive policies of the Shi'a-led government since 2006, in Bahrain the analogous complaints of the Shi'a are met with accusations of outside influence, as if decades (centuries, really, but who's counting right?) of marginalization were insufficient cause for popular rebellion. Iraq's is a Sunni "war of liberation," in the words of one former Iraqi army general (or, according to the Akhbar Al-Khaleej cartoon at the top of this post, an "intifada by Arab tribes"), while Bahrain's February 2011 uprising and aftermath continues to be nothing more than an Iranian-sponsored "attempted coup".

And in case you require some recent examples of the origins of such grievances in Bahrain, here are some choice ones from the past month:
  • Following a historic vote in March to publicly quiz Bahrain's Finance Minister over accusations of corruption, a decision later invalidated on a technicality under government pressure, on June 3 the opposition-less elected lower house of parliament voted to limit *its own ability* to question ministers. The change increases the threshold of votes required to question a minister from one-half to two-thirds. Among other things, such a change would effectively preclude a parliamentary quizzing even if al-Wifaq and/or other opposition groups (hypothetically) returned to parliament in the fall.

  • On the same day, parliament also approved a bill to replace the elected municipal council of the Capital Governorate -- a body that in February called for the resignation of its Al Khalifa governor over allegations of corruption -- with a General Secretariat appointed by the king and elected members of civil society institutions.

  • Two weeks later on June 17, parliament approved a bill allowing the revocation of Bahraini nationality from any citizen who acquires another nationality without written approval from Minister of Interior. Likely targets include political activists who hold dual-nationality, already no strangers to cancellation of their Bahraini citizenship, as well as Sunni tribal families rumored to be leaving the country for greener (and less burning-tire-filled) pastures elsewhere in the GCC.
A final item deserves a paragraph of its own. This is the continued athletic and international jet-setting exploits of Bahrain's "national" triathlon team.  This important Bahraini institution, which seems constantly to receive no little feigned fanfare and local media coverage, is indicative of the extent to which the ruling family and other elites apparently remain, in the space of a very small island, a world apart from the daily issues facing Sunni and Shi'i citizens alike.  (See the final bullet point about potentially significant Sunni emigration.)

Of the 15 team members reported in the Gulf Daily News story, five (one-third) are Al Khalifa, including two sons of King Hamad, and three others are Westerners. A perfect symbol of the "new Bahrain": Brits and royals.

Indeed, I was told in a recent conversation with a well-placed individual that Riffa increasingly is returning to its historical status as a tribal capital and seat of government, the King barely leaving his palace and members of the ruling family using a private airport there, avoiding altogether the hassle of coming into Manama.  Of course, why go to Manama when in 10 hours you can be swimming and biking in Syracuse, New York!

Bahrain: the first post-oil state.  Not the first to run out of oil or money from oil -- Abu Safaa takes care of that -- but the first to stop using oil money to provide for ordinary citizens, prioritizing instead royal jogging and biking trips to far-flung destinations.

Update: The Bahrain News Agency has finally issued its summary of Joe Biden's seemingly random "consultation" with King Hamad on Monday, ostensibly on the situation in Iraq. Of course, one suspects that Biden was on the giving rather than receiving end of the advice, which one hopes should have touched on some of the points in this post.  According to the BNA, the two "agreed on the need for the Iraqi leaders to set aside their sectarian strife and confront the serious security threat to their country." *Ahem* And the similar situation in Bahrain.

Not appearing in the BNA version, however, is another section of the joint statement, which the Kuwait News Agency helpfully reports:
It added that Biden and King Hamad also spoke about ongoing efforts at reform and dialogue within Bahrain, where Biden "encouraged the Government of Bahrain, opposition parties, and all segments of Bahraini society to reach agreement on meaningful reforms and a path forward that addresses the legitimate aspirations of all Bahrainis."

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Iraq Chaos, Fear of U.S. Realignment Feeds Bahrain Conspiracy Mill

If there's one thing disliked by most people, not to mention stock markets and autocratic leaders of nations held together by tenuous overlapping domestic and international political alliances, it's uncertainty.  Unfortunately, the somehow-unnoticed-until-four-days-ago ISIS takeover of broad swaths of Syria and Iraq has generated quite a bit of it now, and we seem to be approaching a full freak-out stage.

For most of the Arab Gulf, Kuwait being the notable exception given what happened after the last one, the specter of what Juan Cole calls the coming "Second Iran-Iraq War" is most frightening not because the GCC is likely to be caught in the (direct) cross-fire, but because it may finally cement what's been worrying Gulf Arabs -- leaders and ordinary citizens alike -- for the better part of three years: a tangible U.S.-Iranian rapprochement and, in the longer term, inevitable strategic alliance.

A post in Friday's New York Times gives a useful breakdown of the conflicting interests of the U.S., Iran, al-Maliki, the Gulf monarchies, Turkey, and the Iraqi Kurds, but the principle at work is simple enough: the enemy (Iran) of my enemy (radical Sunni insurgents) is my friend.  And when one begins to consider all the potential issue linkages that may be in play -- the Iranian nuclear program, the U.S. position on Syria, Iranian involvement with the Huthis in Yemen -- then the regional implications grow even more dizzying.

The upshot is that once-crazy-sounding claims by the likes of Khalifa bin Ahmad about secret U.S.-Iranian plots to overthrow Bahrain and the Gulf monarchies start to sound just un-crazy enough to get otherwise reasonable people riled up.  Hence the GDN's rendering of the U.S.S. George H. W. Bush preparing to unleash uranium-tipped Tomahawk missiles on Riffa, above.

Apart from analyses about converging U.S. and Iran rhetoric on Iraq, feeding this fear in Bahrain also is a more standard sort of scandal: reports of a "secret" U.S. document outlining a State Department program to "unseat" the Bahraini government.  The paper, apparently obtained by a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from the Middle East Briefing (more on these guys later), in fact is a classified overview of the well-known Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) program.  

The Middle East Briefing "exposé" begins,
The Obama Administration has been pursuing a policy of covert support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other insurgent movements in the Middle East since 2010. MEB has obtained a just-released U.S. State Department document through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that confirms the Obama Administration’s pro-active campaign for regime change throughout the Middle East and North Africa region.

The October 22, 2010 document, titled “Middle East Partnership Initiative: Overview,” spells out an elaborate structure of State Department programs aimed at directly building “civil society” organizations, particularly non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to alter the internal politics of the targeted countries in favor of U.S. foreign policy and national security objectives.
In short, this "secret" document essentially repeats what appears very prominently on the front page of the MEPI website, namely that "MEPI supports organizations and individuals in their efforts to promote political, economic, and social reform in the Middle East and North Africa." (In any case, one has a hard time believing that any real "secrets" would be disclosed to a Dubai-based risk analysis firm, FOIA or no FOIA.)  Indeed, if the "analysts" at Middle East Briefing were looking for real controversy, they would have done better simply to browse MEPI's Wikipedia entry, which includes among other historical details its creation by George W. Bush and the appointment of Dick Cheney's daughter as its first supervisor at the State Department.

On the other hand, how one connects this decade-long program to a "policy of covert support for the Muslim Brotherhood" is beyond my powers of intuition.  I recall many Bahraini students on MEPI programs while I was in the country, and the Muslim Brotherhood is about as far from their politics as one can imagine.

One presumes, then, that the anti-MB purpose relates to the particular views of the founders of this Middle East Briefing, whose website tells that its parent company, "Orient Advisory Group, ... is a research and risk assessment firm based in both Washington DC and Dubai UAE." Hrm, imagine that -- Muslim Brotherhood hysteria coming out of the UAE! Methinks things are beginning to make sense.

The mebriefing.com domain name was registered less than a year ago on September 26, 2013, and since then the Muslim Brotherhood seems to be a sustained focus.  For instance, this article on "cooperation" between Washington and the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood announces that "MEB will publish a series of reports based on documents it obtained under the Freedom of Information Act from the US State Department focusing on the US-Muslim Brotherhood 'understandings' in different moments of the relation between the two sides" -- of which the MEPI report is presumably one.

Of course, don't tell this to Bahraini officials, including the Interior Ministry's Assistant Undersecretary for Legal Affairs, as well as al-Asalah MP and anti-American extraordinaire Abd al-Halim Murad, who are busy calling for formal investigations and emergency parliamentary sessions, respectively.  Let's just pray they don't catch wind of the National Democratic Institute -- or the U.S. Navy base in Juffair!

Now for a few couple of items in lazy bullet-point form:
  • The GDN has published Bahrain-related excerpts from Hillary Clinton's new submission in the category of the contrived pre-presidential-run memoir.

  • Bassiouni gave an interview to Al-Monitor on Bahrain's BICI implementation on the sidelines of last week's U.S.-Islamic Forum in Doha, where he chaired a panel.