Sunday, March 20, 2011

Letting the People of Bahrain Down

As The Independent reported today, the brutal regimes in Bahrain and Yemen have declared war against democratic protesters. More Yemenis have been killed in the last three days than in all of the previous weeks of demonstrations. And last Monday forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates invaded the sovereign country of Bahrain—and I say invasion because I still have not read any report where the Khalifah regime openly admitted to extending the invitation, only suggesting that the decision was accepted. Subsequently opposition leaders in Bahrain have been arrested while unarmed protesters were fired upon, sprayed with tear gas, and forcibly removed from the streets. Tanks and helicopters terrorized the countryside. Doctors and humanitarian aid workers repeatedly described ambulances being shot at and clinics coming under siege. Only on Wednesday did President Obama phone the kings of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to urge them both to show “maximum restraint”.

After these events unfolded, the United States secretary of state Hillary Clinton also finally offered that the situation in Bahrain was “alarming”. However yesterday her public comments were anything but representative of a diplomat who truly cares about what is happening to the people of Bahrain. Indeed her words are sympathetic only to the dictators oppressing the Arab peoples, Israel and her hawkish friends in Washington. Instead of slamming the repressive Saudi military action, Clinton declared that “the United States has an abiding commitment to Gulf security and a top priority is working together with our partners on our shared concerns about Iranian behavior in the region. We share the view that Iran's activities in the Gulf, including its efforts to advance its agenda in the neighboring countries undermines peace and stability.”

Whatever in the world is she referring to? How can Saudi Arabia militarily invade another country, shoot unarmed civilians and not be criticized, whereas the Islamic Republic merely blinks and is at fault? Especially considering that recently released WikiLeaks cables reveal how Washington is fully aware that Iran has not been interfering in the internal politics of Bahrain. Since the revolutionary unrest in Arab countries began Iran has done absolutely nothing to threaten Gulf security. Instead, the Islamic Republic has been very diplomatic in its reaction by making official statements critical of the oppression, recalling its ambassador to Bahrain and pledging to support the Red Crescent Society in dealing with the humanitarian crisis there. Indeed it is likely that the government in Tehran is showing considerable restraint because of its own recent crackdowns against internal opposition. Alas at times hypocrisy is a characteristic that both Tehran and Washington share.

Over the last few weeks the terrible dictators in the Gulf have demonstrated to the world that they are perfectly capable of killing their people completely on their own, regardless of outside interference. Nevertheless the Americans have continued to keep their eyes closed to the atrocities of friends while remaining bellicose in rhetoric against enemies who are merely on the sidelines. Despite the remarkably peaceful protests of the dignified and inspirational people of Bahrain, Secretary Clinton's remarks illustrate that Washington has not been able to escape a colonial outlook which refuses to acknowledge that Arabs are more than capable of managing their own destinies without interference from the West, Israel or even Iran. Her comments show that today, we are the ones who are backward.


  1. Not verifiable but a few comments re: Iran urging sedition. It is in their interest to do so...

  2. In terms of great game politics, and Shia - Sunna rivalry, do you think the Sunnis of the gulf can allow a shia state on their door step. Would this lead to further destablization in the region? I don't condone their actions but I can understand their fears...

  3. Can you suggest solutions for the state department regarding Bahrain?

  4. Thank you for your comments :)

    I must admit that I do not understand very well the religious antagonism between Shi'is and Sunnis today. There is a long history that I need to learn more about, so any reading recommendations would be well appreciated.

    From my perspective, religion is also political. So I see the Gulf states fearing Iran not because its government is Shi'i but because the Islamic Republic's politics are anti-American and anti-imperial. This challenge threatens the privileged position of Gulf states who benefit from American hegemony and its imperialist framework. Also, by sending troops into Bahrain, Saudi Arabia has demonstrated that it too is a colonial power.

    We are also suffering from the predicament of identity politics. Take the following statement from Hizbullah about the crisis in Bahrain:

    "Before the excessive use of violence to suppress the peaceful demonstrations by the people of Bahrain to claim their legitimate political rights, the violence which is associated with the use of arms and which came directly after the visit of US Secretary of War Robert Gates to Manama, Hezbollah condemns these irresponsible acts against peaceful citizens and sees them as an aggression on freedom of expression and all the fundamental rights of citizens who aspire to a greater political role with the aim of servicing their country, the rights guaranteed by all international laws and conventions.
    Hezbollah believes that the intensive use of violence does not serve the future of Bahrain and has a negative impact on stability in the country, besides hampering the efforts aimed at reaching a political solution to the crisis in this dear Arab country."

    Nothing in the above statement appeals to Shi'ism and indeed the content could easily be something released by my own state department. And yet because Hizbullah is a Shi'i party, everything it says is seen only through that prism. Thus the US, Israel and Gulf Kingdoms view the statement as a Shi'i threat. But the party is so much more, which is why it now has alliances with Druze, Christian and even Sunni Muslim parties in Lebanon. Indeed Hizbullah is primarily a resistance movement, and one that is against many forms of oppression.

    Ascribing a person, group or state with a particular identity is deeply problematic. You take away their agency and ultimately hold power over them since you are telling them what they are or are not. This problem is very pronounced in the US where Muslims are expected to distance themselves from radical Islam, an act which ultimately gives credence to the belief that all Muslims can be equated with radical Islam.

    My fear is that framing the unrest in the region only in sectarian terms overshadows the deeper injustices many people face daily, sometimes in spite of their religious affiliation and other times precisely because of that affiliation. But the problem here is not the person's sect it is the injustices he or she suffers.

    I have no solutions to offer my state department. But my recommendation would be to have a more diverse set of advisers that is better representative of the populations here in the Middle East. This means more voices representative of Bahrainis in Bahrain, Iranians in Iran (not expats) and Lebanese in Lebanon. As it stands the vast majority of the people in the State Department are deeply committed to Israel's security more than any other population in the Middle East. And since these concerns correspond with repressive Arab dictatorships in the region the conversation ends, not begins. This is a contradiction for a department supposedly based on the logic of diplomacy.

  5. I think it is vital that you understand this situation from the Shi'ite/Sunni angle. Try reading the shia revival by vali nasr or even part of the vanished imam by fouad ajami to understand the historical context of the huge ramifications that the creation of a shia state on the gulf peninsular will have.

    Whilst the Bahraini opposition didn't at first call for the abdication of the monarchy nor did they call for the shi'ite state there are still doubts about the future intentions and how a democratic state might reorientate itself.

    There is no doubting that hezbollah whilst remaining a resistance army within lebanon and whose main interest lies within the state, they have oft-commented on interests outside of their state. Their dealing with Sistani in helping to release Sadr from Imam Ali's mosque is an example of hizbollah acting outside of lebanese politics.

    Iran's dealing with Sadr amongst nearly every other shi'ite party in Iraq is another example.

    Their intentions can be construed to be just as good (for shia) or just as bad (for sunnis) as American intentions in the region. Depends what prism you look at it from. But one cannot 'blame' the Sunni monarchies for 'invading' (not really an invasion given the peninsular shield force agreement - similar to Article 222 of the lisbon treaty) Bahrain given that they earnestly believe that iranian encroachments on the persian gulf peninsular will result in a greater long term existential threat to them, their monarchies and to their religious creed and power balance.

    I again am not taking sides. I believe the shia were downtrodden for far too long in their history. However I also don't believe in 'just desserts' and that Iran/Hezbollah/Sadrists have a divine right to take revenge for nearly a millennium of abuse.

    In terms of intervention. I don't think we can compare Libya to Yemen and Bahrain. The circumstances, the actions of the government and the rhetoric are completely different. The Libyan regime had killed nearly up to 1000 people before the first resolution was signed. His chilling threat of taking no pity on the people of benghazi, a city of 700 000, caused a reaction among the humanitarian organization and arms of western government which spurred them into action. Given their precarious financial situations i think the coalition would have been eager to avoid intervention. In Yemen and Bahrain the situation is serious and shows possibilites of escalating. However in Bahrain no where near as many as 1000 people have been killed and amnesty put the number of dead in Yemen at less than 100. I think the international community is correct on keeping an eye, but like Egypt, i am against intervening at this current moment.

    People can indeed talk about double standards and their is possible reasons of going to Libya to maintain oil trade and curry favour with any new regime. However, i think we should stop looking at the west as some imperialistic and ultimately machiavellian evil empire. There is a reason why China and Russia didn't intervene...just look at their actions within their own countries. The same goes for India.

  6. Thank you for your excellent comments and for the reading suggestions. I have already read The Vanished Imam but not Vali Nasr's book, which has been recommended before. So I definitely need to read that soon. Some of my lack of understanding may be more of a difficulty to understand rather than lack of trying. But I do keep trying.

    I think one our biggest problems is that we humans will always be contradictory. You make a good point that everybody has both principle and self-interest, no exceptions. And unfortunately these often contradict each other. America and Hizbullah both need to look after their own, however those populations may be defined.

    I also agree that the West is certainly not monolithic and hardly coordinated enough to be Machiavellian. In fact I think some people in the region overestimate our cumming :) Many Westerners even have good intentions but make bad decisions and others are merely acting instrumentally without thinking through the human costs. My main critique is that if we command so much power we ought to be more self critical and not less so. To me that is the responsibility we owe to ourselves and others.

    But one of the failures of progressives may be that any push for equality ultimately demands power be taken away from some. Unless we are able to really convince the formerly powerful that this is the correct moral outcome we end up being the new oppressors and in terrifying ways. I think Israel is an unfortunate example here, but it certainly is not the only one. And of course this could become a problem in the Gulf.

    Of course I would not promote intervention in Bahrain by any external power and although its population is far smaller than Libya you are right the situations are not really comparable. That is why I condemn the Saudi invasion. And perhaps my use of that word is uncalled for but as I explained in the post I have not seen any evidence that the idea originated in Bahrain and my reading of defense means protection from external threats and not internal ones.

    We could easily get into a semantic debate because the King felt that his regime was threatened but since he was not democratically elected my sympathies would not be very extensive. Article 222 of the Lisbon Treaty specifically mentions threats to democratic institutions and civilians and not Kingdoms. Also the moral theories that I know relating to just rebellion or revolution would side with popular sentiment and not the King.