Double-Edged Sword

The rebellion within Syria has stayed in the news over recent weeks as the brutality in that country intensifies and the western nations attempt to figure out if they should intervene to stop the bloodshed and how they would go about doing so if they do get involved.  Syria is just one of the many countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa that were impacted by last year’s Arab Spring.  While we’ve heard reports on the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Syria, there has been one small country that hasn’t been getting media attention as of late and that country is Bahrain.

Bahrain is a small island nation in the Persian Gulf just off the coast of Saudia Arabia.  It’s usually where the wealthy elite of Saudi Arabia go to vacation.  I guess the equivalent here in the US would be Martha’s Vineyard or the Hamptons.  And when Egypt was erupting with the voices of those seeking freedom and democracy, Bahrain was, as well.  In fact, while the people of Egypt had the military on their side which allowed them to peacefully demonstrate (for the most part), the people of Bahrain were shut down by brutal force from their military.  It wasn’t to the extreme that we saw in Libya before NATO got involved or that we see now in Syria.  But demonstrators that were coming together to protest their authoritarian government were being shot at.  The US condemned the violence being done by the military, but in the grand scheme of things, it seemed rather half-assed.  Bahrain quickly fell of the radar with events in Libya and subsequently in Syria, but the tensions haven’t really died down.  So why doesn’t the US really get involved on the side of the people who are wanting more freedoms… and why isn’t the media really covering this as they have done before in other countries.  Unlike Libya and unlike Syria, Bahrain is an ally for the US in the region.  And though we did encourage Mubarak in Egypt (a strong US ally) to step down, it was mostly because we could see that it was going to happen in the end.  Bahrain is not so cut and dry, and the small country is also home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

So the US just doesn’t support the democratic movement in Bahrain?  That’s it?  Hardly.  It would appear that President Obama is quietly selling military arms the country.  Congress put a halt to all arms sales when the country erupted in its democratic movement, but the Obama administration has found a legal loop-hole that has been used before by other administrations.  So long as the sale is not over $1-million, Congress does not need to be notified.  And to keep it under that amount, the administration is doing each sale individually rather than as one big sale.  So what are we selling them?  Patrol boats, communications equipment, spare parts for helicopters and fighter jets, weapons (though not small arms), and humvees are all part of the deal… and all of which the State Department has said cannot be used against protesters.  No small arms or tear gas are part of the sale.  One problem with the logic, or lack thereof, of the State Department… once the arms are in the hands of the military in Bahrain, we have no control over how they are used.  When violence finally did erupt in Egypt between pro-Mubarak and anti-Mubarak demonstrators, canisters of tear gas were thrown into opposing crowds.  Those canisters all had a label printed on the outside of them that stated “Made in USA”.  So there is no way to know for sure how the military would use those military arms.  According to an article posted on Al Jazeera, “Bahraini security forces routinely use helicopters to monitor demonstrations, for example, and activists say footage from those helicopters is sometimes used to identify and arrest participants.”

The administration’s actions definitely have some in Congress all worked up… including those of his own party.  Senator Wyden (D-OR) has stated, “Protesters are still being hurt and killed, midnight arrests are still happening and the government continues to deny access to human rights monitors. The kingdom of Bahrain has not shown a true good faith effort to improve human rights in their country and the U.S. should not be rewarding them as if they have.”  (Foreign Policy)  So can Congress really do anything to stop the sales despite them being beneath the threshold of needing its approval?  Yes, they can.  Congress can outright pass legislation that can stop all sales to the nation of Bahrain and cut the nation off.

This is not an unusual occurrence, as I stated earlier.  During the years of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, it was not uncommon for the US to prop up authoritarian regimes that allied with us and try to overthrow nations that were allies with the Soviets.  And this did include arms sales.  It was our goal to keep those military leaders in power that were on our side or we could lose an ally.  In the early 1960s, the US had missiles based in Turkey.  Now, these were controlled by the US military and not by the government of Turkey, but when the Soviets placed its missiles in Cuba, both sides held their breath.  In the end, the US and the Soviets removed the missiles.  The Soviets would also help crush any rebellion that tried to mobilize in any of its Eastern bloc nations in Europe to make sure it didn’t lose it’s foothold in the region.

And though this kind of thing is nothing new, does that mean that we should take objection to it?  Of course not.  If we are holding firm in other nations (most recently in Syria), then we should be holding the government of Bahrain to the same standards.  We should not be selling the country any type of military arms since we cannot say with 100% accuracy that those arms won’t be used against protesters.  We should be on the side of democracy and freedom.  The people of the nation want their voices to be heard, and want their own say in their government.  When the uprising started in 2011, the US government began to contemplate moving the base for the 5th Fleet from Bahrain to another country in the region… possibly Qatar or the United Arab Emirates (the latter would place it closer to the Strait of Hormuz).

Bahrain might be an ally of the US, but it is not an ally of freedom and democracy.  It might be time for that authoritarian regime to meet the same fate as others have before it.  It should be up to the people to decide that.  We here in the US were once moved to rebellion so that we could have our own self-determination.   Yes, there could be ramifications if the uprising either succeeds or even fails in the country.  But the US has to make a bigger decision first… whether to uphold the out-dated Cold War policy of supporting the authoritarian regimes of our allies or in placing freedom and democracy before all others.  It’s time to stop the arms sales to Bahrain and allow history to unfold and go down the path that the people determine.

CORRECTION: (3/17/2012)
As I often write these entries, I, too, am learning new things.  So there are times when I do miss certain bits of information. Yes, even I have to make corrections, and I do own up to them when I do.  It’s impossible for one person to know every bit of detail, but I try to get you as much as I can.  That is why we have this site for civil debate and discussion.  After reading this entry, a friend of mine was quick to send me an email on this error.  I stated, “So there is no way to know for sure how the military would use those military arms.”  His reply involves something the US State Department does called Blue Lantern Checks, and they are obligated by law.

“Blue Lantern end-use monitoring entails pre-license, post-license, or post-shipment  inquiries or “checks” undertaken to verify the bona fides of proposed foreign consignees and end-users, to confirm the legitimacy of proposed transactions, and  to provide “reasonable assurance that –

  1. the recipient is complying with the requirements imposed by the U.S. Government with respect to use, transfers, and security of defense articles and defense services; and
  2. such articles and services are being used for the purposes for which they are provided.”

But could a foreign government still use something we sold them for a purpose they aren’t supposed to?  Sure.  Though we can track most of its usage, not everything is going to be able to be verified.  A government can still say that they used it for one thing and then use it for something else.  It just depends on how good they are at covering things up.  It’s all very murky water.  (Big special thanks to my friend for sending me this bit of information.)

Foreign Policy
Al Jazeera
Blue Lantern Checks (US State Department)


2 Responses to Double-Edged Sword

  1. Pingback: Bin Laden Is Dead - But Not Gone | Living History

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