How Obama Caved on Bahrain

What’s that sound you hear from the White House on the human rights abuses and brutal autocratic government in Manama? Silence.


Once upon a time, President Barack Obama’s administration not only followed the crisis in Bahrain closely, but spoke loudly about it. American policy was clearly to press for a compromise between the Sunni royal family and the majority Shiite population. After all, the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, allowing the United States to project its naval power across the Gulf, and roughly 8,500 Americans live there. Violence and instability in Manama are obviously something the United States wishes to avoid.

Way back in 2011, when the Arab Spring began and protests spread across the country, demanding more democracy and better representation for Shiites, Obama himself pressed for change in Bahrain. In February 2011, as protesters massed in the tens of thousands at Manama’s Pearl Roundabout, the president issued a statement welcoming reform plans — which, alas, were never really carried through — announced by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Obama reaffirmed that it was the U.S. position that Bahrain’s stability would be ensured through “respecting the universal rights of the people of Bahrain and reforms that meet the aspirations of all Bahrainis.”

The king, however, answered Obama’s call for reform with more repression. On March 14, he invited in troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to help put down the protests. Thousands of security forces stormed the Pearl Roundabout demonstrations on March 16, clearing the protest camp and arresting its leaders. Two days later, the Pearl Monument at the center of the roundabout, which had become an icon of the protests, was demolished, and closed the area off to the public.

In the aftermath of the crackdown, Obama’s tone on Bahrain noticeably toughened. The message was clear: Stability must depend on respecting the rights of the people, not on foreign troops. When the president gave a major speech on the Middle East in May 2011, he was even more critical of Bahrain and its policy of repression: “We have insisted both publicly and privately that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens, and … such steps will not make legitimate calls for reform go away.”

Later in that speech, he said that Shiites “must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain,” raising one of the most explosive aspects of how the Sunni government has attempted to suppress protests by the Shiite majority.

In Obama’s September 2011 address to the U.N. General Assembly, the tiny country got a whole paragraph. The president said that the United States “will continue to call on the government and the main opposition bloc — the Wifaq — to pursue a meaningful dialogue that brings peaceful change that is responsive to the people.” He also said that reforms had been made, but that “more is required” — three words that amounted to a clear message that the monarchy was falling short. The White House was not about to let the king off the hook — and the president himself was raising the issue, not some spokesperson.

What has happened since then? Not much.

There has been little or no progress in Bahrain — domestic tensions have instead risen higher. Everything President Obama demanded has been refused. In June 2011, an independent commission was established to examine the events during the early months of the uprising, and in November it reported its findings to the king. Its recommendations, however, were roundly ignored: In 2012, the commission’s chairman, law professor Cherif Bassiouni, delivered what George Washington University’s Marc Lynch termed a “scathing critique of its failure to undertake any deeper political or social reforms.”

Bassiouni has given the government credit for taking a number of his recommendations — even as he laid out Manama’s failings to resolve the underlying grievances of the protests. “There are very, very fundamental social and economic issues involved in the Shiite population that need to be addressed, and have not been addressed,” he said in a 2014 interview. “When you have people who do not have the hope of seeing themselves as equal citizens, as having equal opportunities in a particular country, living in mostly economic underprivileged areas in high-density population areas, they explode.”

Others are even more critical. In May 2014, Human Rights Watch issued a report finding that, despite the king’s promised reforms, “members of security forces are rarely prosecuted for unlawful killings, including in detention, and the few convictions have carried extremely light sentences.”

The Bahraini government has also adopted new methods to silence opposition voices. In January 2015, it stripped 72 citizens of their nationality, rendering many of them stateless. As Amnesty International pointed out, the authorities included human rights and political activists on the same list as Bahrainis who allegedly went to fight with the Islamic State (IS). So the government of Bahrain is trying to equate peaceful protest with jihadi terrorism.

While the government is painting all protesters as “terrorists” who support the Islamic State, its own policy appears to be one of promoting sectarian divisions. As the human rights activist Ala’a Shehabi wrote in Foreign Policy last year, the monarchy has been “nurturing and nourishing extremist groups and their sectarian ideology to counter the so-called ‘Shiite threat’ posed by the pro-democracy uprising.”

For the government, Sunni solidarity appears to trump the need to act against Sunni extremism. “Bahrain’s public stance on the war against IS contrasts sharply with its lack of action at home,” Shehabi continued. “So far there doesn’t appear to have been any documented trial of any person on charges of IS-related terrorist activity despite government vows to pursue and monitor their activities.”

All of this is not to offer roses to the conduct of the Bahraini opposition, which some observers see as having missed several opportunities to gain ground. It has said no when it should have said yes to occasional government offers, some close students of Bahraini politics have argued, and has a habit of seeing compromise as betrayal. Not every movement has a Nelson Mandela at its head: Many opposition leaders around the world could probably make a good case that the leadership of al-Wefaq, the main Shiite opposition group in Bahrain, has made tactical errors.

Yet it is hard to agree to compromise when you or your family are in jail, being beaten, or being called a terrorist. In the case of al-Wefaq, its leader, Sheikh Ali Salman, has been thrown in jail yet again and charged with plotting a coup and inciting violence against the security forces.

As the Bahrain situation has worsened in the years since 2011, what has been the Obama administration’s reaction? After the tough language and the demands made by the president in 2011, what has come next?

The answer is: near silence — accompanied by steps that make it clear to the royal family that there will be no real American pressure for reform.

After the firm language in his 2011 U.N. General Assembly speech, Obama’s only mention of the worsening situation in his U.N. address two years later was a one-line reference to the need for efforts “to resolve sectarian tensions that continue to surface in places like Iraq, Bahrain, and Syria.” No doubt the Bahraini monarchy was unhappy to see Bahrain compared to Iraq and Syria, but there was no blame — and no call for action.

In 2012, the president didn’t mention Bahrain in his U.N. speech, and that year the White House issued just one statement about Bahrain — from the press secretary rather than from the president. It blamed both the government and the opposition for the continuing violence, urged the government “to redouble its ongoing efforts to implement the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry,” and called for “genuine dialogue” and “meaningful reforms.”

We do not need to wonder whether the government of Bahrain viewed those comments in 2011 and 2012 as real pressure. In May 2011, it orchestrated a campaign against the human rights officer at the U.S. Embassy in Manama, Ludovic Hood, and the State Department pulled him out for his own safety. “It is unacceptable that elements within Bahrain would target an individual for carrying out his professional duties,” said the State Department — but Bahrain paid no price.

Throughout his term as ambassador to Bahrain, from 2011 until early this year, Tom Krajeski was subject to the same sort of abuse in the press. Krajeski was no hot-head, and said repeatedly that he placed the blame on the lack of political reconciliation in Bahrain on both sides. But the veteran diplomat’s mere recognition of serious human rights and political problems in Bahrain was too much for the government, which made sure he was vilified in the press. In May 2013, the Bahraini cabinet approved a parliamentary proposal to “put an end to the interference of U.S. Ambassador Thomas Krajeski in Bahrain’s internal affairs.”

Then in July 2014, Bahrain’s government actually expelled U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Tom Malinowski for meeting with members of the country’s political opposition — an extraordinary and unprecedented act for a U.S. ally to take. What price did Bahrain pay for this? Zero.

It gets worse. An American citizen named Tagi Abdalla al-Maidan has been in jail in Bahrain since 2012. He’s accused of violent acts, and the government claims he confessed; he denies the accusations and says the confession was obtained by torture. He was held in prison for almost an entire year before a court hearing, and then handed a 10-year prison sentence. Last year, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared that the court had violated a whole series of substantive and procedural rights that rendered his imprisonment a violation of international and Bahraini law.

What has the U.S. government reaction been to the imprisonment of one of its citizens in a faulty legal process? As CNN pointed out in November, the United States “has said little” about Maidan’s case. State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said that the United States was following the case closely, and that “this is a matter of ongoing concern.”

Were I in a foreign prison, those words — “this is a matter of ongoing concern” — would not seem to me a tough and energetic demand for my freedom. It’s hard to believe the United States could not spring Maidan if it pushed hard enough.

The United States maintains considerable leverage in Manama. Even a small drawdown of U.S. military personnel would reverberate loudly there, as would moving — or even announcing a study of moving — any piece of the U.S. military presence out of Bahrain.

Perhaps more important, there’s a great struggle over whose “narrative” will prevail in Bahrain: the government’s, arguing that its crackdown is designed to oppose terrorism and maintain stability; or that of the opposition, arguing that the country is becoming increasingly repressive toward peaceful protests and human rights. If the United States were to side publicly, and loudly, with the opposition, the outcome of the argument would be affected.

More public pressure might well force the royals to think harder about compromises, and strengthen the hand of those who are privately arguing for reform.

Instead, the United States has not only remained largely silent on human rights abuses, but has acted in ways that can only convince the Bahraini government to ignore any quiet protests that are actually made. In 2012, when Congress objected to arms sales to Bahrain because of the repression there, the Obama administration used a loophole to continue the sales. As Foreign Policy reported, the State Department is required to formally notify Congress of any arms sales over $1 million. According to a congressional source, rather than going through the notification process, the administration divided up an arms sales package into multiple sales, each of which was less than $1 million — thereby dodging congressional oversight.

That was 2012. In 2013, the Navy announced that it was adding five more coastal patrol ships to American forces in Bahrain. Last year, the Obama administration went forward with a more than half-billion-dollar expansion of the U.S. presence in Bahrain, which will cement the U.S. presence in the country for decades to come. Now, what signal does that send the royals?

“With each passing day, the Bahrain government’s self-fulfilling prophecy of a sectarian war is becoming more and more the reality,” Reza Aslan wrote in 2013. “If that happens — if the Bahrain uprising descends into the kind of regional holy war between Sunni and [Shiite] — the United States will not be able to avoid the consequences.”

That message holds true for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which makes one wonder why it is smart to assume that the facilities the United States has in Bahrain will in fact be available — or safe to use — in the coming decades. Meanwhile, the announcement of the expansion can only be read one way by the Bahraini authorities: The American protests about human rights conditions are not serious.

It didn’t have to be this way — nobody forced the United States to turn a blind eye to Bahrain’s explosive domestic situation. Consider an alternative path: Suppose a top-level messenger, such as the chief of naval operations or chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had been sent to Bahrain to say, “Look, I personally would like this base expansion. But there’s no way it’s going to happen until the repression stops. In fact, we are going to announce that naval facilities elsewhere in the Gulf will be examined for future expansion to replace Bahrain, because Bahrain is viewed as increasingly unstable. Guys, you’ve got three months to start showing us something.”

Such a message — and if necessary, a public statement a few months later — would have had a huge impact. It would have shown the Bahraini government and its supporters the risks they face; it would have made the business community nervous, and perhaps more supportive of reform; and above all, it might have given additional ammunition to those in the royal family who favor reconciliation over repression. Instead, the Obama administration is sending the clear message that its loud protests are over, the president won’t speak about Bahrain, and the monarchy can relax.

In fact, no one should relax about Bahrain. It is on a path toward increasing instability, featuring growing Sunni extremism, growing Shiite outrage, and ever-widening sectarian divisions. The Fifth Fleet is a hostage, and the Obama administration is spending hundreds of millions of dollars there as if America’s welcome will be permanent. That’s a suspect assumption: As the majority of Bahrainis conclude that the United States is indifferent to the crackdown and siding with the most regressive elements of the royal family, support for the Fifth Fleet’s presence will start to disappear. As will Bahrain’s very sovereignty, as it is caught up in the regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Once upon a time, Bahrain was an outpost of civility and moderation in the Middle East. Now, it is coming to share the pathologies of its neighbors. That’s tragic, and it is in part the result of weak American policy. By placing security matters — Bahrain’s minuscule participation in the anti-Islamic State coalition and its hosting of the Fifth Fleet — above all other considerations, the Obama administration is putting that very security relationship at risk.

Once upon a time, Bahrain was also an example of a sensible Obama human rights policy. Today, one can sadly say that it’s a good example of how that human rights policy has vanished into thin air.


Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the former U.S. State Department special representative for Venezuela during the Trump administration.