Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

A view from Bahrain: The opportunity for a new approach to the Middle East

With so much going on, Bahrain has been off the radar screen for many Americans, including this blog, unfortunately. To make amends for that neglect, here is a good report, and below is a column from a citizen of Bahrain. By "a Bahraini" Best Defense guest columnist While the worst of the surge of brutality ...

JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images

With so much going on, Bahrain has been off the radar screen for many Americans, including this blog, unfortunately. To make amends for that neglect, here is a good report, and below is a column from a citizen of Bahrain.

By "a Bahraini"
Best Defense guest columnist

While the worst of the surge of brutality that lasted from March 15-23 has ended, the nightmare of living under the "State of National Safety" has only just begun, for every Bahraini who called for accountability, a representative parliament and an end to corruption.

With so much going on, Bahrain has been off the radar screen for many Americans, including this blog, unfortunately. To make amends for that neglect, here is a good report, and below is a column from a citizen of Bahrain.

By "a Bahraini"
Best Defense guest columnist

While the worst of the surge of brutality that lasted from March 15-23 has ended, the nightmare of living under the "State of National Safety" has only just begun, for every Bahraini who called for accountability, a representative parliament and an end to corruption.

As of March 31, 26 Bahrainis have been killed, one of whom was 15 years of age; 304 have been arrested, including 11 women; and 24 activists remain missing. These numbers conceal the real tragedy of a population paralyzed by fear, at the mercy of masked gunmen and riot police that man the many checkpoints and have a license to kill; and humiliated on a daily basis by state-owned television channels intent on "purging" and "cleansing" the island of its "traitors, trained by foreign elements." Many of the Bahrainis who are being targeted were active in the Pearl Square events and activities — poets, artists, protest organizers and bloggers. Every night, houses and cars parked in the besieged villages are ransacked, and individuals detained overnight and/or arrested. Medical personnel who tried to help the injured during the crackdown have themselves been arrested, beaten and intimidated. Any Bahraini brave enough to venture through the checkpoints at the gate of the main Salmaniya Hospital with "protest-related" injuries — from live ammunition, rubber bullets, tear gas inhalation — is taken away to the Defense Force hospital. Such is the fear that even patients with regular ailments now avoid the hospital: whereas the average daily patient intake was around 1,000 before the crackdown, under the new military management, the daily intake has dropped to around 250 patients. Bahraini workers who went on strike before the crackdown — at the aluminum plant, the refinery and schools- have been dismissed, and members of the teachers’ union, who organized the school strike, have been arrested.

Between Feb. 19 and March 14, the Al-Khalifa regime was meticulously planning this crackdown even while proclaiming its intent to "conduct dialogue." Influential lobbyists and public relations firms were recruited early on — Bell Pottinger in the United Kingdom, and Potomac Square Group in the United States — to help steer world opinion through the crackdown that would ensue. During the string of visits by the Al Khalifas to their kin and clan across the Gulf region, fears of the potential "infection" of regime change were magnified, thereby securing assurances of regional solidarity backed by financial and military support. To preclude any discussion of the blatant human rights violations to be committed, or of the validity of the aspirations of the pro-democracy movement, the specter of an imperialistic Shia Iran was carefully nurtured from late February onward, despite the lack of evidence of any Iranian influence in Bahrain as recorded in WikiLeaked U.S. Embassy cables. With this in place, and under cover of the international military action in Libya, the crackdown was launched.

Not every Arab uprising needs, or is expecting, Western military intervention. But the young Arab pro-democracy movements do expect that those in the Western world who enjoy the luxury of human rights, and have preached good governance, transparency and accountability, will "walk the talk." The status quo is not sustainable, and a reconsideration of the basis for all traditional policies towards the Middle East is critical to such issues as the Palestinian peace process, the Iranian problem and the relationship with oil producers. Furthermore, a democratic Arab world would significantly assist in the fight against terror by reducing the appeal of radical groups like al Qaeda.

In the meantime, the train has not yet gone past for Bahrain. As outlined by Obama in his recent speech on Libya, the United States must be consistent in reaffirming everywhere its "opposition to violence directed against one’s own citizens," and its support "for a set of universal rights, including the freedom for people to express themselves and choose their leaders, for governments that are ultimately responsive to the aspirations of the people." One effective step in dealing with the Al Khalifa regime can be through "denying the current regime, arms and cutting off its supply of cash."

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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