Secretary of State Rex Tillerson professed in his Senate confirmation testimonythat “our values are our interests when it comes to human rights.” Yet one of his State Department’s first acts may be to abandon that stance with the tiny but strategic Persian Gulf state of Bahrain.
Concerns in Congress and the human rights community are high that the Trump team is planning to approve a multibillion-dollar sale of Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter planes to Bahrain without any conditions, reversing an Obama administration decision to demand the government take small reform steps in exchange for the jets.
“I’m hoping the Bahrain deal is going to roll out without the restrictions,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said last month. “I think it could happen soon.”
If approved by State, the sale would reward a Sunni monarchy that has been cracking down on its majority-Shiite population and flouting U.S. requests for restraint.
Corker objected to the fact that the Obama administration attached human rights conditions to a congressional notification about the F-16 sales sent to Capitol Hill in September. Congress is given a chance to object to an arms sale before it goes through, but typically there are no conditions attached by that stage in the process.
“This type of conditionality would be unprecedented and counterproductive to maintaining security cooperation and ultimately addressing human rights issues,” Corker told me. “There are more effective ways to seek changes in partner policies.”
But other lawmakers view the question differently. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) wrote to President Trump last week to argue against the sale.
“Some people argue that our close ties with Bahrain are reason for America to avert its gaze and ignore the worsening human rights abuses,” Wyden wrote. “I and many others categorically reject this argument and believe instead that America is obligated to push her friends and partners to uphold basic human rights and the rule of law.”
Wyden wants to know if the White House or State Department leadership consulted the department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor about the human rights situation in Bahrain and also how the sale contributes to U.S. national security. A department spokesman declined to comment, while the White House did not respond to my query.
Tom Malinowski, who served as the head of the bureau at the end of the Obama administration, said that the Bahrain case will show whether Congress will stand up for human rights if the Trump administration will not.
“Here’s the first test for Republicans who have been saying that we are going to continue to insist on human rights around the world,” he said. “Is this going to be a press release or are they going to do something about it?”
Options for Congress are limited. In addition to Wyden, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has been outspoken about the need for reform in Bahrain. They could bring up a congressional resolution to oppose the F-16 sales, but similar efforts have not succeeded in the past. Last year, the Senate failed to advance a resolution put forward by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) that opposed U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia over alleged human rights abuses in the war in Yemen.
Without congressional action, private bilateral pressures on the Bahraini government are unlikely to work. In 2015, the Obama administration lifted a four-year ban on arms sales to Bahrain after extensive negotiations. Per their agreement, the government of Bahrain released opposition leader Ibrahim Sharif. He was rearrested on new charges only a few weeks later.
“This wasn’t just about human rights, this was about a country going back on its word at the highest levels,” one senior Obama administration official said. “It was about how the United States was treated.”
The conditions Obama attached to the F-16 deal in September, which were never made public, were meant to be easy for the government to fulfill. They included the release of human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, who faces years in prison for tweeting and writing an op-ed in the New York Times, and allowing some organization by the regime’s political opposition following the forced dissolution of the opposition al-Wefaq party.
None of those actions were taken, and the Bahraini government is now in the midst of a “full-scale crackdown,” said Cole Bockenfeld, deputy director for policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy.
“If the Trump administration releases the sales now, that completely validates the Bahraini hard-liners’ view that they don’t need to even pretend to be improving on human rights anymore,” he said.
As Bahrain is a major non-NATO ally and host of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, its stability and security are in the United States’ national security interest. But if the Bahrain government doesn’t allow for political dissent and basic human rights, both of those goals will be undermined over the long term, along with U.S. values and interests in the region.