It wasn't that long ago when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Syrian President Bashar Assad was a force for reform. Now she is outraged that Russia is allegedly backing Assad with weapons. At the same time, the U.S. is arming the government of Bahrain, which oppresses its Shia majority.
Duplicity and hypocrisy may be inevitable in diplomacy. However, ostentatious duplicity and hypocrisy are not. Sanctimoniously denouncing Moscow for behaving like Washington tarnishes America's image abroad.
Syria is a horrid tragedy, an incipient civil war as the majority of people attempts to oust a family dictatorship. Unlike Libya, however, a substantial segment of the population either supports Assad or opposes a revolution which could result in a vengeful, violent spree against ethnic and religious minorities. No outcome looks good and there is little Washington can do to prevent more violence.
Moreover, the U.S. has no security interest, let alone one of any importance, to warrant military intervention in yet another Muslim and Arab nation. Nor is humanitarianism a good justification. Iraq should banish the illusion that war is a sophisticated tool for engaging in delicate social engineering abroad. With 200,000 or more Iraqis dead as a result of George W. Bush's "splendid little war," Barack Obama would be well-advised to keep the troops at home.
Finally, American policymakers should drop their "do as we say, not as we do" international routine. There's nothing new about one set of Washington diplomats wandering the globe promoting democracy and advancing human rights while another set simultaneously is busy promoting stability and advancing security. That was most evident during the Cold War. The U.S. stood for all that was good and right, except when it came to South Korea, Pakistan, Egypt, Nicaragua, Chile, Zaire, Iran, Somalia, Iraq, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and other Third World dictatorships.
The disappearance of the Soviet Union relieved America of the seeming necessity of trashing its principles in order to save them. Then the so-called global war on terrorism pushed Washington closer to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the Central Asian thugocracies. More recently the Obama administration had trouble responding to the Arab Spring since it was invested in Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak and comfortable with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.
Since then Washington has found its voice against Assad, who conveniently is perceived as a likely loser. President Barack Obama recently declared: "we stand for principles that include universal rights for all people and just political and economic reform." At the moment when it comes to Syria, anyway.
Even while the administration campaigns against Assad it continues to back Bahrain's autocracy and the latter's chief autocratic sponsor, Saudi Arabia. In typical even-handed fashion, American officials have called for restraint on both sides—Bahrainis demonstrating for democracy and Bahrainis shooting those demonstrating for democracy.
No doubt, the situation in Syria is worse than that in Bahrain. And no amount of hypocrisy in Washington can justify the conduct of Damascus. Nevertheless, the Obama administration's discreditable behavior makes a mockery of the American government's alleged commitment to democracy and human rights.
Bahrain, like most of the other Gulf States, is essentially a royal dictatorship. A Sunni royalty manipulates the system to advantage the minority Sunni population. The Shia population is disadvantaged and oppressed. Last year the Shiites rose up, only to face ruthless repression by Manama's rulers, who employed the full power of the state. Peaceful demonstrators were attacked. Scores were killed. Many were arrested, even doctors caring for wounded protestors. The Bahrain Youth Society documented scores of deaths and beatings of demonstrators over the last year. An independent human rights review revealed torture to be a "systematic policy."
According to the State Department's latest human rights assessment of Bahrain: "egregious human rights problems reported in 2011 included the inability of citizens to peacefully change their government; the dismissal and expulsion of workers and students for engaging in political activities; the arbitrary arrest and detention of thousands, including medical personnel, human rights activists, and political figures, sometimes leading to their torture and/or death in detention; and the lack of due process."
That's not all. The State Department added: "Other significant human rights concerns included arbitrary deprivation of life; detention of prisoners of conscience; reported violations of privacy and restrictions on civil liberties, including freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, and some religious practices. In some instances the government imposed and enforced travel bans on political activists." When it comes to religion, explained State, "the Sunni Muslim citizen population enjoyed favored status, and the Shia population faced discrimination." And on State went.
Nor did Bahrain's Shia residents face only Bahraini oppression. The regime naturally blamed local unrest on Iran, without producing any evidence ofTehran's involvement. However, other Gulf nations, led by Saudi Arabia, sent troops to bolster Bahrain's royals. The House of Saud is both family kleptocracy and Sunni dictatorship. Riyadh certainly is no friend of human liberty. Noted the latest State Department human rights report: "problems reported included citizens' lack of the right and legal means to change their government; pervasive restrictions on universal rights such as freedom of expression, including on the Internet, and freedom of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and a lack of equal rights for women and children, as well as for workers."
Other issues included "torture and other abuses, poor prison and detention center conditions, holding political prisoners and detainees, denial of due process and arbitrary arrest and detention, and arbitrary interference with privacy, home, and correspondence." Given the controls over personal lives, including religious practice, the system is essentially totalitarian. The U.S. went to war with Iraq while allied with Saudi Arabia, but a Christian woman would have been far better off living in Baghdad than Riyadh.
The Saudi royals know they live the good life and are prepared to shed as much blood as necessary to preserve their system. That means stifling the incubus of Shia revolt in next-door Bahrain. Indeed, Riyadh has proposed a quasi-union with its small neighbors, which naturally horrifies Bahrain's Shiites. Not that Saudi brutality bothers American presidents, who have routinely feted rulers from the House of Saud. Indeed, rarely has the word "democracy" passed the lips of an American diplomat in the presence of a Saudi prince.
Admittedly, Washington was embarrassed by the protests in Bahrain. It tut-tutted about the brutal suppression of democracy protests and said the al-Khalifa royal family should be nicer to the people it was mulcting. Most recently the Obama administration professed itself to be "deeply disappointed" by a Bahraini decision to uphold the earlier conviction of medical personnel for treating protestors: "These convictions appear to be based, at least in part, on the defendants' criticisms of government actions and policies." Who would have imagined?
But Bahrain's King Hamad recently threatened the opposition for "insulting" the army, which is the regime's primary tool of repression. He announced that "the executive agencies must take the necessary legal measures to deter these violations." Which, based on past behavior, presumably means arrest, torture, and imprisonment, if not death, for violators. Still, Washington wants to be even-handed. Earlier this month State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: "We urge all sides to work together to end the violence and refrain from incitement of any kind." If only the Shia would stop criticizing the oppressors they might not get shot.
The administration's dilemma is obvious. The U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet is based in Manama. And the U.S. doesn't want a little thing like some state-sponsored human rights violations to get in the way of an otherwise beautiful friendship.
However, the U.S. doesn't stop with acquiescing to the Bahraini royals and their plundering and torturing. Washington is actively strengthening the regime. Last year the Obama administration reluctantly held up in arms sales under congressional pressure. Now Washington is releasing $53 million in "previously notified equipment needed for Bahrain's external defense and support of 5th Fleet operations." Other security assistance will remain on hold, at least for now."Bahrain is an important security partner and ally in a region facing enormous challenges," explained Nuland.
No matter how the administration attempts to spin its decision, it is seen as an affirmation of the al-Khalafi dictatorship."You really should be nicer to the people you are oppressing; oh, by the way, here are the weapons you were expecting" is what Manama will hear from Washington. Complained Mohammed al-Maskati, a Bahraini human rights activist: "It's a direct message that we support the authorities and we don't support democracy in Bahrain, we don't support protestors in Bahrain."
The administration recognizes how its action looks. One unnamed U.S. official told the Christian Science Monitor: "We've made this decision mindful of the fact that there remain a number of serious unresolved human rights issues in Bahrain which we expect the government of Bahrain to address." No doubt, after filling his armory the king will rush to oblige!
Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch, credited Washington with advocating political reform, but argued "the number one U.S.security interest in Bahrain right now is not making sure they have slightly better F-16 engines, it's making sure that they implement the reforms needed to make the relationship sustainable over the long-term."
The revelation of American arms-dealing coincided with the administration's shrill attack on Moscow for allegedly providing Syria with helicopters. Doing so, said Secretary Clinton, would "escalate the conflict quite dramatically." She urged Moscow to "cut these military ties completely" since "It is now time for everyone in the international community, including Russia... to speak to Assad in unified voice and insist that the violence stop.
However, the U.S. charges, delivered in Washington's typically sanctimonious tone, turned out to be false. The choppers were Syrian and had been sent to Russia for repairs. Apparently Moscow has not sold Damascus new helicopters since the 1990s. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his nation was "completing contracts that were signed and paid for a long time ago. All of them are contracts for what are solely air defense systems."
Nuland attempted to put the best face on Washington's error by saying that helicopters, new or refurbished, could be used against demonstrators. But an unnamed Pentagon official told the New York Times that the secretary of state was "putting a spin on it to put the Russians in a difficult position." That might have worked before it had become obvious that the government represented by Secretary Clinton was arming the Bahrain royals despite their brutal misbehavior.
Nor is Bahrain the only example. Washington has cheerfully traded American weapons for Saudi cash despite Riyadh's suppression of human liberty. Egyptis back-sliding from democracy while continuing to collect foreign aid. Much U.S. money goes to the Pakistani military, which is the principal barrier to genuine democracy in Pakistan. Israel is a favored American client even though it continues to rule over millions of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. Washington policy makers rarely let human rights stand in the way of a weapons sale.
Ironically, Russian arms for Damascus might help stop a war. Apparently Moscow has provided Syria with some air and naval defense weapons. The head of Russia's state arms export agency contended they will help deter an attack on Syria. And Damascus has a far better claim than Bahrain to need defensive weapons. The latter likely would be protected by both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. in the unlikely event of an attack, presumably by Iran. In contrast, influential people in Washington and European capitals are pushing to attack Syria. Obama administration officials even told CNN that the U.S. military had completed plans for intervening in Syria.
The world would be a better place with Bashar Assad and his allies residing in history's great trash bin. But no one knows who would replace him, and whoever did might not make the world a good place. America's experience with other foolish military adventures demonstrates that Washington should stay out. The U.S. does not need yet another unnecessary and unpredictable war in the Muslim world.
At the same time, American policymakers should drop their sanctimony. Endless moralizing long has undermined U.S. foreign policy. If Washington intends to arm oppressive regimes, it can't credibly object when Moscow acts likewise. Including in Syria.