This again?

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U.S. Moves to Lift Bahrain Arms Ban

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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During a meeting in Paris last month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry promised the foreign minister of Bahrain that the U.S. would work to lift its four-year ban on delivering weapons to the Gulf kingdom, imposed because of Bahrain’s brutal crackdown on protesters, activists and political opponents that began during the Arab Spring of 2011 and continues to this day. 

The problem with Kerry’s promise -- which has not been previously reported -- was that he was speaking extemporaneously, four senior administration officials involved in the issue told me. The actual inter-agency decision to scuttle the weapons ban had not been made. U.S. and Bahraini officials have been holding secret negotiations to come to such a new arrangement. U.S. negotiators are now operating with the understanding that lifting the weapons ban is a commitment that Kerry made, and one the U.S. government is working hard to fulfill.

Unlike with previous U.S. government discussions over what to do about Bahrain’s human rights abuses, this time President Barack Obama's team has not consulted Congress. I caught up with Senator Ron Wyden, who along with Senators Marco Rubio and Patrick Leahy has been pressing the administration to maintain the ban until Bahrain showed more progress on civil rights. Wyden was surprised when I told him the weapons ban could be ending.

“I would have significant concerns about lifting arms sales restrictions to Bahrain. U.S. arms sales should not be aiding and abetting the suppression of peaceful dissent abroad," Wyden told me. "The State Department's own Human Rights reports detail widespread political repression that must be addressed before it considers lifting this ban."

Earlier this year, Wyden, Rubio and Leahy sent a letter to the State Department urging it to keep the embargo, which was imposed in 2011. At that time, Bahrain was lobbying Congress to lift the weapons ban, with the help of the law firm DLA Piper. The State Department assured the senators that no change was imminent. Now, State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez confirmed that the negotiations are taking place.

“The issue remains under review, but we have made no decision at this time to resume the shipment of restricted items,” he said.

One senior administration official told me that the White House ultimately has to sign off on any decision to lift the ban. He clarified that the current negotiations are to lift the ban on foreign financing to Bahrain’s military, not to the ministry of interior, which is implicated in most of the human rights abuses. There will be some terms intended to assure that Bahrain continues its path toward reform and makes efforts to reduce the repression of those who oppose the kingdom’s policies.

The reasons for the shift in administration thinking are easy to understand. It has pledged to expedite arms sales to members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Bahrain, to mollify concerns about the pending nuclear deal between six global powers and Iran. The U.S. is also calling on Arab Gulf states to increase their commitment to fight the Islamic State, and Bahrain is a junior member of the coalition striking the jihadists inside Iraq and Syria. It is also home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet. 

“Whether we reach a nuclear deal or not with Iran, we’re still going to face a range of threats across the region, including its destabilizing activities, as well as the threat from terrorist groups,” Obama said at a press conference at Camp David after meeting with Gulf leaders last month. “And so a key purpose of bolstering the capacity of our GCC partners is to ensure that our partners can deal with Iran politically, diplomatically, from a position of confidence and strength.”

The catch is, many of the weapons that the Bahraini military is seeking for “external defense” can be used to suppress internal dissent as well. In addition to F-16 fighter planes, items that have been held back include Humvees, small arms, ammunition and tear gas, according to the Congressional Research Service. The U.S. imposed addition restrictions last year when the Bahraini regime expelled Tom Malinowski, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for human rights, democracy and labor, for trying to meet with opposition leaders. Some weapons, such as equipment for Bahrain’s coast guard, have continued to flow during the ban.

The embargo was imposed by the administration, not codified in law, so the administration can lift it without congressional consent. Congress could pass a law to prevent the arms sales, but previous efforts were not successful. Still, lawmakers and democracy advocates maintain that Bahrain’s actions since the 2011 uprising began don’t justify any loosening of the restrictions.

A 500-plus-page report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, set up to investigate abuses by the government following the 2011 unrest, found there was “systematic” and “deliberate” use of excessive force, including torture and forced confessions. GCC military forces were implicated in the abuses, and contrary to the regime's claims, there was never any evidence to link the protests to interference by Iran.

The inquiry's report laid out 26 specific recommendations for Bahraini government reform. The State Department, in a 2013 report, stated that Bahrain had fulfilled only five of them. Rubio inserted an amendment into next year’s defense policy bill mandating that the administration compile a new report on Bahrain’s progress.

While Obama administration officials insist that Bahrain has taken some steps in the right direction, a number of experts argue that the regime has actually backslid. They point to the imprisonment of leading opposition figures, including Nabeel Rajab and Sheikh Ali Salman, both jailed on charges related to speaking out against the government.

“The message is clear -- the Bahraini government feels confident it can rule with an iron fist without any consequences from the international community,” said Cole Bockenfeld, advocacy director at the Project on Middle East Democracy. “Reforms have clearly not happened, and releasing the arms now would only reinforce the widespread perception that the U.S. isn't serious about holding its allies accountable on reform.”

The movement toward easing the pressure on Bahrain matches other U.S. shifts in the region. Restrictions on military aid to Egypt, imposed after the military coup in 2013, have largely been set aside, with the support of many in Congress. There’s a feeling inside the administration and in Congress that weapons bans have not changed the behavior of regimes that reacted brutally during the Arab Spring. Now that those revolutions have largely failed, the argument goes, punitive measures yield little benefit.

But the U.S. government's reversion to a policy that prioritizes stability in the Gulf over the defense of human rights and universal values is shortsighted. It undermines Obama's high-minded rhetoric on supporting U.S. values abroad. When the next wave of popular demand for dignity and self-determination comes to that region -- and it certainly will -- the U.S. will probably have far less leverage and credibility with which to support it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net