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Bahrain Propaganda 101: Foreign Minister Gets a Boost from Washington's Journalists

See also Bahrain Feature: The Freedom Torch Protests

On Wednesday, during a talk by Bahraini activist Maryam Al Khawaja, I ventured the comment that the "success" of the Bahraini regime's propaganda effort would not come through social media, where its supporters' efforts have become a source of annoyance at "trolling" or of comedy. Nor was Bahrain's monarchy getting much value of the US and British PR firms who, for quite expensive contracts, were trying to dress up State press releases as "news" and putting out clumsy opinion pieces on The Huffington Post.

Instead, I suggested, the "success" would come through mainstream Washington journalists. Sometimes this is through the re-cycling of the regime's claims, citing unnamed sources --- see the recent effort by David Ignatius of The Washington Post. Sometimes, it is the attempt by a regime official to use an article as a podium for the right line.

Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy magazine gives us an example of the latter with his "Bahrain Foreign Minister on DC Charm Offensive", published Wednesday:

Bahraini Foreign Minister Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa has been in town for over a week meeting with officials and lawmakers to assuage U.S. concerns over the kingdom's domestic crackdown, and sat down for a lengthy interview with The Cable.

Khalifa's message was clear: The Bahraini government is sensitive to international concerns about its treatment of protesters, pledges to follow the recommendations of an upcoming commission report on its actions, and wants to reinforce that the international community should not lose sight of the broader security situation in the region, characterized by the Iranian threat.

"I'm here to see our friends in the administration and Congress to try to explain what's happening in Bahrain," he said. "We are just before the issuance of the commission of inquiry's report. I'm here to show our commitment to that, how we will accept it and do all that is necessary to implement it."

Rogin puts in context for Khalifa's statements --- a report due from the regime-appointed Bahraini Independent Commission of Inquiry on 23 November, a State Department announcement that a $53 million sale of arms would not be completed until the report was published,  the arrest of teachers' activist Jaleela al-Saman last week  --- but the Foreign Minister is usually guaranteed the defining word:

Khalifa said his government has been alarmed by congressional opposition to the arms sale, but said that he trusts the Obama administration to judge the outcome of the commission's report fairly. He also argued that a delay in completing the arms sale would not be in the interest of regional security.

"What worries us is that we don't need to delay any requirement for the necessary architecture to protect the region. Bahrain is a cornerstone of that," he said. "That's what I'm talking about here and I'm finding very listening ears."

The spin is a bit trickier in the passage where Rogin implicitly questions the Foreign Minister's declaration, but even here Khalifa has the trump card of the Iranian spectre:

Khalifa told The Cable that no military hardware has been used against protestors. "Our soldiers did help the police under the banner of the police...  but no military hardware was used," he said. Several videos have surfaced of armored troop carriers allegedly firing on protesters and journalists.

So what is the urgency of the U.S. arms sale? Khalifa said that if the United States wants to advance deepening security ties with the Arab Gulf states, any delays would only send the wrong signal to the region's adversaries, principally Iran.

And the detentions and claimed abuses of protesters and activists?

"The claims of torture, that is in the hands of the commission of inquiry," Khalifa said. He said that all government police are clearing identified and sometimes they use overwhelming force during arrests because of the chaotic situation in some Bahraini towns. "If the arrest happens at night, some of the villages are not in a very orderly place. So maybe the arrest was to minimize chaos," he explained.

All in all, a pretty good pay-off for Khalifa. Rogin may put in the qualifier, "It's too early to tell if Khalifa's charm offensive has had any impact," but he certainly does not hurt the effort with his conclusion:

Khalifa struck a confident note that, in the end, it will all work out between the United States and Bahrain.

"We're allies, we're friends. If your friends don't give you advice, what kind of friends are they?" he said. "I think definitely, with commitment, we will sail through this."

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