After one false start, courtesy of Senator Ron Wyden's leak, the Obama administration has used the royal visit of Bahrain's Crown Prince to officially announce a resumption of U.S. arms transactions. Accompanying this decision is a misleading explanation of its rationale and a predictable defense of the monarchy's reforms:
Today, the Administration informed Congress that for national security interests we have decided to release additional items and services for the Bahrain Defense Force, the Coast Guard, and the National Guard for the purpose of helping Bahrain maintain its external defense capabilities. Bahrain is an important security partner and ally in a region facing enormous challenges. Maintaining our and our partners’ ability to respond to these challenges is a critical component of our commitment to Gulf security.
We have made the decision to release additional items to Bahrain mindful of the fact that there are a number of serious unresolved human rights issues that the Government of Bahrain needs to address. We will continue to maintain the holds on the TOW missiles and Humvees that were notified to Congress last October. Certain additional items for the Bahrain Defense Force, as well as all items for the Ministry of the Interior, excepting the Coast Guard and units deployed in Afghanistan, will also remain on hold. The items that we are releasing are not used for crowd control.
While the Government of Bahrain has begun to take some important steps to implement the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report, the country is becoming increasingly polarized and much work remains to be done. We are concerned about excessive use of force and tear gas by police. At the same time, we are concerned by the almost daily use of violence by some protestors. We urge all sides to work together to end the violence and refrain from incitement of any kind, including attacks on peaceful protestors or on the Bahraini police. Going forward, we will continue to engage with Bahrain to encourage meaningful progress on human rights and reform.
The United States believes that addressing the underlying causes of last year’s unrest and undertaking meaningful political and institutional reforms are critical to Bahrain’s stability and the strength of our countries’ longstanding partnership. All Bahrainis have a significant stake in participating in dialogue that leads to reform, and we call on the Bahraini government and people to resolve their issues through discussion. We remain committed to supporting Bahrain in achieving progress in these areas.
The State Department briefly magnifies its own consequences before implying a false equality between the government's crackdown and oppositional resistance. However Bahrain is "becoming increasingly polarized and much work needs to be done" - starting with major revisions to U.S. policy. The tactic of withholding certain weapons is an immediate giveaway; none of the weapons are urgently needed to battle Iran and "holding" suggests that the rest will eventually be released. At a higher strategic level, the administration intentionally wants to flex its military support for Bahrain and publicly back its King.
The star of Washington's political show isn't the weapons themselves, which U.S. officials insist cannot be used on protesters, but the notion of rewarding Bahrain's monarchy for its response to a democratic uprising. The Obama administration continues to steamroll all opposition to U.S. policy with mild criticism of the government, preparing the ground for its concern and condemnation of oppositional violence. By lumping the two sides together and urging them to "resolve their issues through discussion," the administration essentially leaves the opposition with nothing except the status quo. Leading activist Nabeel Rajab remains in jail. Meanwhile Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa has met an assortment of high-ranking officials (Biden, Clinton, Panetta, Kerry, Lieberman) that the opposition cannot access.
Ultimately U.S. weapons are no more than a political message to Iran, a message that echoes the monarchy's narrative and divides the island. The mere possibility of U.S. arms sales has reinforced anti-American sentiment and perpetuated the conflict, while insincere negotiations with the political opposition has fueled civil disobedience. In the bluntest of terms, the Obama administration is ordering asymmetric warfare in Bahrain to "not happen."
That's not how asymmetry works.