The Bahrain Arms Deal


Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice.

— Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man

The question is why the United States was even thinking of selling arms to Bahrain.  The answer can be found in the fact that the United States is the number one arms supplier in the world and to maintain its status it cannot be judgmental about the conduct of its customers.  If standards of conduct were the operable criteria, the United States’ customer base would be reduced if not eliminated.  As it is, sales of arms simply jeopardize the lives of some who live in the customers’ countries as well as those with which they may come into armed conflict, conflicts that might not take place were the adversaries not armed by the United States and other weapons supplying countries.

On March 19, 2011protestors took over Pearl Square in Manama, Bahrain.  Two days before the take over and acting under orders from King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the army had used live ammunition to crack down on the Shiite dissidents who were demanding changes in how the country was governed.  Unlike Egypt or Tunisia, where the revolts against the establishment were quick and successful, in Bahrain the monarchy brutally put down the revolt, assisted by its neighbor, Saudi Arabia. (As reported in the Los Angeles Times, on March 15  “hundreds of troops from Saudi Arabia and police officers from the nearby United Arab Emirates . . . entered Bahrain at the request of the ruling family. . . .”)  Thanks to his own quick, if brutal response, and the assistance of Saudi Arabia,   King Hamad continues to rule.

In Egypt and Libya and more recently Syria, the Obama administration said the conduct of their respective leaders had resulted in the loss of their right to rule.  In Bahrain, home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, the Obama administration urged the Kahlifa family  and the demonstrators to negotiate their differences.  The fact that Bahrain is the headquarters for the U.S.  5th Fleet was probably not the reason for the different approach.

Although King Hamad successfully put down the revolt he was sufficiently concerned about reports of brutality by government forces that four moths after the events took place he appointed a commission to  investigate.  The commission was headed by Professor Cherif Bassiounim a professor of international criminal law and a former member of U.N. human rights panels.  The report was released on November 23, 2011.  According to the Associated Press, in the press conference at which the results of the commission’s findings were announced, Mr. Bassiouni said when the revolt began, the government undertook midnight raids to create fear and engaged in purges from workplaces and universities. A number of Shiite mosques were destroyed. Those jailed  were blindfolded, whipped, kicked, given electric shocks and threatened with rape to extract confessions.  The Bahrain Center for Human Rights said more than 40 deaths of protestors  occurred.

Although it is likely that someone in the United States government was aware of the appointment of the commission, it did not wait to find out what the commission would discover.  Instead, on September 14 the Pentagon told Congress it intended to sell more than 44 armored Humvees and 300 TOW missiles to Bahrain.  Some outside the administration who had followed events in Bahrain were alarmed.

Shortly after the notice was sent out Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) wrote the Secretary of State and observed what she might have observed without his prompting.  He wrote  that: “Proceeding with the announced arms sale to Bahrain without modification under the current circumstances weakens  U.S. credibility at a critical time of political transition in the Middle East.”   In what might be described as an “oops” moment,  the administration said it was delaying the arms sale until the Bassiouni commission report was released and it had had a chance to review the report.  Some might wonder why it took a letter from a Senator to get the State Department to delay its actions.  The answer can be found in more than the zeal of the United States to stay in first place in the arms sale business.   It can be found in a  government audit that was released on November 19, 2011,  The audit found “inadequate monitoring of American weapons sales to Persian Gulf countries with questionable human rights records or recent clashes with protesters.” According to the Washington Post, the GAO’s report  expressed concern about “how the U.S. government ensures the proper use of military equipment” sold to, among other countries, Bahrain.  It observed that “[s]uch vetting is especially critical given Bahrain’s use of its security forces to quell public demonstrations.”

Commenting on the GAO report, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, said:  “We need to ensure that the equipment is not being diverted to third parties, and that those groups and units who are the intended recipients are not implicated in human rights violations.” Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen got it right.  The disturbing thing is that the State Department didn’t.

Christopher Brauchli is an attorney living in Boulder, Colorado. He can be e-mailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu.

November 30, 2015
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