- By Kori SchakeKori Schake is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and contributor to Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government blog.
Little noticed amidst the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) support for a U.N. no-fly zone in Libya on March 13th was another endorsement for the use of military force: deployment of GCC military and police forces to Bahrain. The choice of Gulf governments to have as their first military operation the repression of peaceful advocacy for political change is ominous.
For the past two decades, American governments have encouraged the countries of the GCC to make good on the "cooperation" part of their organization. The overwhelming tendency of the governments of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar has instead been to criticize American policies in public while supporting them in private. Only with the alarming progress of Iran’s nuclear programs has cooperation between GCC states advanced to include any significant military cooperation.
The GCC’s Peninsula Shield Force was created to "deter, and respond to, military aggression against any of the GCC member countries." But the Bahraini government is not subject to military aggression — it is under "attack" by its own citizens, peacefully protesting for political rights.
In fairness, the government of Bahrain has offered an expansion of political rights in response to the protests. But as autocrats from the Shah of Iran to Hosni Mubarak could attest, offers that would earlier have mollified reformers can embolden resistance once the invisible line from reform to revolution has been crossed.
The monarchies of the GCC states claim agitation for political change is the product of Iranian influence, an effort by to radicalize and destabilize their countries. And they may not be wrong about Iranian efforts: Shi’ia Iran has long sought to delegitimize those Sunni regimes, supported seizure of the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia in 1979, infiltrated Iraq to foment anti-government violence, and openly supported destruction by Hamas and Hezbollah. But the GCC governments deceive themselves about the depth of popular support for political change in their countries.
It is not clear if Bahraini government initiatives have come too late for political change to be successful in defanging the revolution. But it is clear that even as they support international action to assist rebels in Libya, the autocrats of the Gulf Cooperation Council will cooperate to repress peaceful dissent in their own countries, and that will make their governments more brittle and unreliable as partners for the United States. It matters that GCC governments acted in concert, because it now aligns them all against peaceful political change. And they will be utilizing American and European military equipment and training to repress their own citizens. That really is a victory for Iran.