U.S. Offered Rosy View Before Bahrain Crackdown
By Mark Landler
The New York Times
February 18, 2011
WASHINGTON — At a town-hall-style meeting in Bahrain two months ago, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton got a pointed question from a member of Bahrain’s Parliament: was the United States letting Bahrain, a Persian Gulf ally, off the hook for a string of arrests of lawyers and human rights activists?
The moderator rebuked the questioner for “hijacking the mike,” but Mrs. Clinton replied anyway. “I see the glass as half full,” she said, pointing to Bahrain’s recent elections. “I think the changes that are happening in Bahrain are much greater than what I see in many other countries in the region and beyond.”
When it came to Bahrain, Mrs. Clinton was not the only American diplomat who tended to see the glass as half full. Her rosy assessment, which seems incongruous in light of the army’s bloody crackdown on protesters, illustrates how the United States government has overlooked recent complaints about human rights abuses in a kingdom that is an economic and military hub in the Persian Gulf.
And it leaves the White House once again scrambling to deal with an Arab ally facing a tide of popular discontent. In this case, its calculations are complicated by signs that Bahrain is being pressed by its neighbor Saudi Arabia, the most strategically important country in the region.
In cables made public by WikiLeaks, the Bush and Obama administrations repeatedly characterized Bahrain as more open and reform-minded than its neighbors, and pushed back when human rights groups criticized the government.
In a January 2010 cable, the American Embassy in Bahrain criticized the human rights group Freedom House for downgrading Bahrain’s rating from “partly free” to “not free” in its global survey of political rights and civil liberties. The cable asserted that Freedom House had been successfully lobbied by a radical Shiite movement, known as Haq, which rejects the government’s reform efforts.
Another cable passed along doubts about a Human Rights Watch report that said the police were using torture in interrogations — saying it relied heavily on allegations made by members of the same group — though the embassy did urge the Bahraini authorities to undertake a “timely and credible” investigation.
“The embassy was feeding this happy talk for years,” said Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch. “Bahrain was moving on a genuine reform path for several years, but it did a significant U-turn in the last year, and I think the U.S. government was well behind the curve.”
A senior administration official said Mrs. Clinton was not offering a definitive judgment of Bahrain’s record, but praising it for legislative elections a few weeks earlier, which the government, by all accounts, had handled in a free and fair manner. Elections, Mrs. Clinton noted, are only one element of a democratic system. And she addressed, albeit perfunctorily, the arrests of human rights advocates.
“People are arrested and people should have due process, and there should be the rule of law, and people should have good defense counsel,” Mrs. Clinton said. “We believe in all of that, and we say all of that.”
Still, the chummy tone of her visit, and those of other American officials, has magnified the shock and dismay of American officials over the violence. They are struggling to understand how King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, a monarch described in the cables as “personable and engaging,” could have resorted to the kinds of brutal measures that Egypt’s government shunned.
On Friday, President Obama condemned the violence in Bahrain, as well as in Yemen and Libya, where security forces also clashed with protesters. Saying that he was “deeply concerned,” he urged “the governments of Bahrain, Libya and Yemen to show restraint in responding to peaceful protests, and to respect the rights of their people.”
Administration officials said it was not entirely clear, amid the chaos in Bahrain, who was giving orders. The royal family has various factions, suggesting, they said, that hard-liners, rather than the king, could have told the soldiers to open fire. The king said Friday that he had put his son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, in charge of a dialogue with protesters.
The prince, a 1992 graduate of American University in Washington, is described in a 2009 cable as “very Western in his approach.” He “is closely identified with the reformist camp within the ruling family — particularly with respect to economic and labor reforms designed to combat corruption.”
Briefing cables prepared for visiting American dignitaries typically laud King Hamad’s reform program, which he began soon after succeeding his father in 1999. He restored Parliament, banned since 1975; allowed exiles to return; and abolished the much-feared state security courts. When Freedom House dropped Bahrain from “partly free” to “not free” in its 2010 survey, a cable, signed by Ambassador J. Adam Ereli, offered a spirited defense of the government.
“Gerrymandered districts notwithstanding, Bahrain’s citizens enjoy the right to vote for their national and municipal legislators every four years,” it said. “Political societies and N.G.O.’s are active to an extent almost unheard of in the gulf, even in Kuwait, which Freedom House designated as ‘partly free.’ ”
One area where the embassy has not tried to defend Bahrain is Internet freedom. In a 2009 cable, diplomats said the government had blocked various Web sites — primarily those offering pornography and online gambling — but also political sites run by extremist Sunni and Shiite parties.
“For the moment,” said the cable, Bahrain “seems serious about cutting off access to the affected Web sites. However, it appeared to lose interest in a similar campaign in June 2008, and may do so again.”
In January 2010, a State Department technology expert, Alec J. Ross, met Bahrain’s minister of cabinet affairs to push Mrs. Clinton’s message of Internet freedom. Local human rights groups, meeting with embassy officials, urged them to lean on American companies to stop selling Bahrain’s government technology that blocks Internet access.
The drive to cut off Shiite Web sites attests to King Hamad’s fear that outside forces, like Iran or the militant group Hezbollah, would ally with Shiites inside the kingdom to destabilize it.
In a 2008 cable that gives a glimpse of Bahrain’s sensitivities, the embassy reported that despite the government’s “periodic claims that there are Hezbollah- or Iranian-connected sleeper cells with Bahrain, they have never offered hard evidence of such a presence, and our reporting has been unable to substantiate it.”
Andrew W. Lehren contributed reporting from New York.