Victoria Jones PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.America’s new president, Donald J. Trump, has yet to fully articulate his foreign policy strategy - or to at least unify the divergent views of his cabinet - but one thing is abundantly clear: the next four years are going to be a far cry from the Obama Doctrine.
For the people of Bahrain, a key US ally in the Arab Gulf, this is cause for both apprehension and optimism.
From his campaign to his first week in office, Trump has shown little interest in promoting human rights at home or abroad, instead often specifically advocating for violations of international law. It is profoundly disconcerting for pro-democracy activists and human rights defenders in the Middle East and North Africa to hear Trump praise the likes of Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, and Muammar Gaddafi - the same autocrats they’ve risked their lives to resist.
Still, many of President Obama’s lofty promises for the region fell far short of expectations. In May 2011, just after Bahrain’s Al Khalifa monarchy violently suppressed the country’s pro-democracy uprising, for example, Obama emphasized America’s commitment to human rights reform and peaceful reconciliation.
“The only way forward is for the government and the opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail,” Obama said, instructing his State Department to prohibit arms sales to Bahrain until it had demonstrated significant progress toward rectifying the political crisis.
More than five years and a whole presidential term later, however, the Obama administration failed to make good on this initial stand. Rather, since 2011, it largely just stood by.
In some cases, the administration even allowed itself to be outmaneuvered by a Bahraini government eager to restore its international image in the absence of real reform.
During Obama’s penultimate year in office, Bahraini officials managed to reverse America’s strongest bargaining position – and eliminate much of its leverage – with little more than slight of hand. Playing to American calls to implement the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), a committee of international jurists tasked with investigating abuses perpetrated in 2011, the Bahraini government made several reform-minded overtures, including the release of prominent political leader Ebrahim Sharif.
The US promptly took the bait and lifted a punitive arms ban it had imposed in the aftermath of the 2011 crackdown, restoring weapons sales to the Bahraini army and national guard. State Department officials cited “meaningful progress on human rights and reconciliation,” such as Sharif’s release.
But, in a shamelessly lazy bait and switch, Bahraini authorities rearrested Sharif just weeks later, almost instantly reneging on whatever deal had been struck. As would become characteristic of the Obama administration’s last two years of engagement with Bahrain, it criticized the decision but did nothing – content for Bahrain to have its weapons and its political prisoners too.
America’s return on this failed deal has only gotten worse in the months leading up to the Trump presidency.
As the campaign kicked into high gear over the summer, so too did the Bahraini government’s renewed assault on dissent, religious freedom, and independent civil society.
Among other abuses, since May 2016 Bahraini authorities have exiled prominent rights activist Zeinab al-Khawaja, denaturalized and prosecuted the country’s Shia religious leader Sheikh Isa Qassim, judicially harassed more than 75 Shia clerics for offenses related to free expression and assembly, rearrested leading human rights defender Nabeel Rajab on charges stemming from his activism, and dissolved the largest political opposition group in Bahrain, Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society.
Most disturbingly, on 15 January 2017 - days before Trump assumed office - Bahrain inaugurated a new era of its own: for the first time in two decades, the government executed three of its own citizens on politically-motivated charges. Sami Mushaima, Ali Al-Singace, and Abbas Al-Samea were shot to death by firing squad after being tortured into providing false confessions related to a 2014 bombing attack on the police.
Like hundreds of other cases of torture in Bahrain, the government did not investigate these abuses; rather, it stripped the men of their citizenship in trials rife with due process violations and expedited their case through the appeals track, holding the executions just one week after Bahrain’s highest court confirmed the sentence and only a month after a lower court had done the same.
Bahrain and the US are allies and partners in the fight against terrorism, a mission that will surely center on President Trump’s international agenda. But the Bahraini government has repeatedly and increasingly demonstrated its willingness to eschew domestic reconciliation for violence and instability, even using its broken counterterror legislation as a weapon against internal dissent.
It is clear what Bahrain gets out of this partnership – but is the US truly benefiting?
President Trump, a businessman devoted to the “art of the deal,” has declared he will “pursue a new foreign policy that finally learns from the mistakes of the past,” even if that means retooling alliances as longstanding and fundamental as NATO. “Our goal is stability,” he says, not “toppl[ing] regimes and overthrow[ing] governments.”
If this is the case, then there is no better time for the president to renegotiate terms with Bahrain than now. Before unchecked oppression turns stability to a pipe dream, the Trump administration must indeed learn from the mistakes of its predecessors and finally play that last and most powerful bargaining chip: the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet base in Manama.
Congress has previously requested contingency planning to relocate the base should Bahrain’s political situation continue to deteriorate, but we’re now reaching a fever pitch of repression. President Trump must show allies that even Obama referred to as “free riders” – like Bahrain and its domineering neighbor, Saudi Arabia – that the US is willing to seriously reconsider the necessity of the facility and, by extension, the deeper conditions of the partnership.
If Obama’s lip service to human rights masked the true transactional nature of the relationships between America and its autocratic allies in the Gulf, perhaps Trump’s professed penchant for hard-nosed bargaining could at least put the US back in the driver’s seat.
Moreover, with Trump’s supposed dedication to an isolationist, “America 1st” foreign policy, far-flung security arrangements – epitomized by a facility like Manama’s Fifth Fleet base – may no longer be vital to America’s interests.
From that position of strength, the president would be wise to ensure that any continuing partnership with Bahrain does serve America’s ultimate interests in the region, which remain stability-cum-democracy and human rights.