Obama Should Reconsider US Approach to Bahrain

Justice is a fiction in much of the Persian Gulf. Nowhere is this truer than in Bahrain, a place where torture and state terror have become the norm. The country’s political elites talk frequently about freedom and the need for legal and political order. The reality, however, is that Bahrain’s judicial system is little more than theater. The courts are sites in which freedoms are not assured, but where they are subordinated to the whims of centralized tyranny. Over the last two years, Bahrain has blithely ignored almost all of its domestic and international commitments to refrain from torture, to protect free speech and to honor due process, all conventions that the country has ostensibly built into its “constitutional” order.

In the most recent instance, the country’s highest court upheld lengthy prison sentences for 13 prominent human rights and political activists, including life imprisonment in some of the world’s most brutal dungeons. Having already been subjected to late night abductions, military tribunals, torture, and false accusation, it is hardly surprising that the imprisoned were unable to find relief in Bahrain’s sham appeals process.

More remarkable is the unwillingness of Bahrain’s most important Western patron, the United States, to openly acknowledge that its partner and host to the 5th Fleet is not merely managing its way through a crisis, but building a regime of fear and violence all while claiming the opposite. In her comments yesterday at the State Department’s daily briefing, spokesperson Victoria Nuland offered what has become a familiar refrain — a mild rebuke dressed up in principle, but one that makes clear that the US is unwilling to say or do more.

The US position on Bahrain’s excesses, in ways that are eerily similar to the island country’s own theatrical posturing, is more histrionic than substantive. Clearly, in spite of their claims otherwise, American leaders are mostly content with the status quo. Nuland expressed “regret” and “concern” about Bahrain’s high court’s decision to uphold the convictions of key opposition figures yesterday. She added “that this decision further restricts freedom of expression and compromises the atmosphere within Bahrain for reconciliation.”

The reality is that there is nothing further to restrict. The only clear willingness for reconciliation has come from the country’s opposition, not the government. In also calling for further investigations into torture and accountability, Ms. Nuland asks her listeners to suspend disbelief and to consider seriously that Bahrain has any real interest in the pursuit of a meaningful resolution. It has been clear for two years that Bahrain’s leaders desire victory and vengeance, the total destruction of the democratic opposition.

While American leaders almost certainly would prefer a political resolution to Bahrain’s challenges, they have done little to help advance the cause. Bahrain’s leaders have learned that mild admonishment is a small price to pay while they consolidate a new era of authoritarianism. They understand that the American approach is feeble and feckless, if often justified, because of Bahrain’s strategic significance. Long a reliable partner in the US mission to police and patrol the Persian Gulf and to ensure the “flow of oil,” American unwillingness to come down too hard on Manama is also a sign of deference to Riyadh. Saudi Arabia has little interest in seeing Bahrain’s opposition enjoy political gain.

It is, however, well past time to think seriously about whether US strategy in the Gulf is working or, instead, whether it helps abet the very conditions of instability that threaten the region and prospects for more open and durable regional politics. The reality is that oil’s flow does not need protecting. Bahrain does not deserve a pass because it is home to American military facilities.

Toby C. Jones

Toby Craig Jones is associate professor of history and Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. From 2012 to 2014 he will serve as co-Director of the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis. He is also a non-resident scholar in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Senior Research Associate at Human Rights Watch in 2012. Jones is the author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia (Harvard University Press, 2010) and is currently writing a new book for Harvard titled America's Oil Wars. Jones is an editor of Middle East Report and has published widely, including in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, the Journal of American History, The Atlantic, the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere. He has held fellowships at Swarthmore College and Princeton University. From 2004-2006 he was the Persian Gulf analyst at the International Crisis Group.