News that the White House is set to approve the sale of military jets to Bahrain without any human rights restrictions is as depressing as it is predictable. The $3 billion deal would be a dangerous misstep, showing that the new administration is handling its foreign policy with all the surety of a blindfolded guy juggling eggs.
Congress needs to step in to stop this happening.
Although the Obama presidency didn’t do nearly enough to push Washington’s Gulf ally to stop its repression of peaceful dissent, it at least tied the sale of 19 F-16s to Bahrain to some human rights reform—the restrictions that President Trump is about to lift.
The sale will encourage further repression, which, in turn, will cause greater instability and violence as Bahrain enters a particularly tense period. The sixth anniversary of the mass uprising against there repressive regime was last week, marked by renewed street protests and clashes between demonstrators and the police. Already in 2017 we’ve seen the first executions since 2010, and two policemen have been killed. Earlier this month Bahraini security forces killed three men attempting to flee the country, and killed another last week trying to arrest him.
Meanwhile leaders of the peaceful opposition remain in prison along with other prominent human rights activists. The regime has left itself with no one to talk to should it ever want to end its political crisis.
Bahrain’s government says Iran is behind the protests in an attempt to ignore legitimate grievances. It may be true that Tehran is exploiting the unrest for political gain, but that’s all the more reason for the Bahraini monarchy to accede to the opposition’s totally reasonable demands: allow fair elections, end corruption, and stop torturing and jailing dissidents. The sale will send exactly the wrong signal to the dictatorship, that the White House thinks the crackdown is not just morally acceptable but also not dangerous, when in fact it’s what’s fueling the country’s instability.
Congressional alarm halted arms transfers to Bahrain in 2011 as bipartisan group in Congress led by Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Ron Wyden (D-WA) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) recognized that the move would threaten U.S. national interests, including the safety of the U.S. Fifth Fleet base, anchored in the tiny country. The halt helped produce a period of relative calm and the release of some political prisoners. Since the State Department allowed the resumption of sales to Bahrain’s military in June 2015, the situation has become significantly more violent and unstable. Washington’s actions matter, and Senator Wyden has written to the White House opposing the latest sale.
Members should be concerned too about Bahrain’s ever-closer military and political ties to the Kremlin. Two visits by the king of Bahrain to Russia last year revealed his interest in “a closer look at your modern products, your arms manufacturing complex,” Bahrain creating a list of companies ready to invest in Crimea—which President Putin annexed from Ukraine in March 2014—and one of the Moscow meetings concluded with talk of joint Russian-Bahrain military exercises.
While the Trump White House might be relaxed about Bahrain’s cozying to Putin and the consequences of supplying the fighter jets, the deal is very likely to backfire. U.S. interests would be better served by nudging the monarchy towards stability though reform before the country descends into deeper political chaos.
The White House and Congress should be pressing Washington’s ally for the release of peaceful dissidents such as prominent human rights defenders Nabeel Rajab and Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, and for political dialogue, not signaling to the dictatorship that it will get weapons no matter how brutally it treats its political opponents.
This is a bad deal for the United States. It would be an excellent time for a bipartisan group in Congress to emerge and exercise enlightened leadership.