Why US silence on Bahrain's crackdown could backfire
For the fourth time in two weeks, a detainee died in police custody. Witnesses say his body, like the others, bore signs of abuse.
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The US went largely silent when Saudi troops arrived in Bahrain under the aegis the Gulf Cooperation Council's Peninsula Shield Force, analysts say, out of a desire to repair its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Those ties have been strained since the US urged former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a Saudi ally, to step down from power during a popular uprising. The Saudis viewed the fall of their ally as a dangerous precedent.Skip to next paragraph
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America's credibility, interests damaged
But the US failure to condemn human rights abuses committed by the Bahraini security forces while condemning such abuses in Libya and Syria is undermining any credibility it had with Bahrainis. If Saudi and the US had hoped to curtail Iran’s influence through Bahrain, they may have instead given it an opening.
Bahrain’s portrayal of its protest movement as sectarian has contributed to an overall increasing of the sectarian divide across the region. That has given Iran “fuel for the fire,” says Justin Gengler, a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor whose research has focused on Bahrain.
Indeed, the situation in Bahrain has given Iran repeated opportunities to publicly criticize the oppression of Shiites and criticize Bahrain, leading to increased verbal back-and-forth between Iran and the GCC, which “the US can't see as very helpful,” says Mr. Gengler. But rifts have also opened in the Arab world. He points to the GCC’s move to ask the upcoming Arab League summit in Iraq to be canceled, likely because Iraq’s Shiite politicians have been vocal critics of Bahrain’s crackdown.
The situation in Bahrain and the US handling of it, he says, has produced changes the US likely didn’t anticipate. “[The US] knew that Bahrain was a lynchpin to the entire Gulf,” he says. “They knew they wanted stability in Bahrain, because a lot of other things could go wrong. But it seems like a lot of other things are going wrong even with what they're doing.”
Clinton speaks out
In a possible indication it is sensitive to such implications, the US has spoken up twice this week on Bahrain, albeit mildly. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in remarks at the US-Islamic World Forum in Washington on Tuesday, said that despite the long friendship with Bahrain, “we have made clear that security alone cannot resolve the challenges facing them. Violence is not and cannot be the answer. A political process is – one that advances the rights and aspirations of all the citizens of Bahrain.”
And a State Department spokesman, responding to a reporter’s question at a briefing in Washington about the fourth detainee death in police custody, called on Bahrain to ensure the security of detainees and conduct investigations in to the deaths.
While such statements, though mild, are a change from near silence, they will have to go further to satisfy the Bahrainis who bear the brunt of the crackdown.
“We are not different from the Libyan people, from the Tunisian people, from the Egyptian people,” says Sayed el-Mouswi, cousin of the youth killed in Saar, at his funeral. “Why is the US making double standards?”