Crown Prince Salman and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
To be honest, I didn't quite appreciate the significance that Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa had shown up in Washington this week.
The Crown Prince Salman appeared on Wednesday alongside US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but the smiles in the photographs were overtaken by headlines of Clinton's supposed pressure on the regime. The Secretary of State had called on the monarchy to recognise the importance of human rights, carrying out the reforms set out in last November's report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry.
A new, tougher US position on Bahrain, after 15 months of political conflict, detentions, clashes, and almost 100 people killed by security forces? I didn't think so, but at least Clinton had put out rhetoric which went beyond the default line, used in almost every mainstream article, "Bahrain is home to the US 5th Fleet".
And, then, on Friday the other shoe dropped. Months after it had held up $53 million in arms sales because of the human rights issues that Clinton had mentioned, the Obama Administration was going to send a good portion of the weaponry:
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.
The caveats followed:
A number of serious unresolved human rights issues that the Government of Bahrain needs to address....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.
But I think the Administration doth protest too much. The US holding up "anti-tank missiles" is not exactly a game-changer, given that Bahrain's police forces are not prone to use anti-tank missiles and can easily get their crowd-control weapons of choice, such as tear gas canisters and birdshot, from private suppliers.
As Clinton and the Administration well know, both during the Wednesday photo opportunity and amid Friday's statement, the arms sale has a symbolism and political significance far beyond the immediate shipment. At one level, it establishes that --- for all the talk about human rights --- the US puts its top priority as "national security interests" and "Bahrain [as] an important security partner and ally". All the Crown Prince had to do, if he faced a US official genuinely thinking about moving abuses and rights to the top of the agenda, was mutter one word: Iran.
And then was the equally important American statement about the future of Bahrain. This was not the King receiving the US gesture; this was not the Minister of Defence, who had publicly declared that the Obama Administration is trying to undermine the regime.
This was the Crown Prince, the man repeatedly framed as the "moderate" among hard-liners, being anointed with the weapons. This is Washington's knight to bring stability and "reform", whatever that word means.
That is far from a new line for the US Administration. It has been noticeable in the last month, however, how many articles coming out of Washington and New York have been speaking of a polarisation, not just among the Bahraini population but within the regime. Watch out was the message --- members of the court, the Prime Minister, and Minister of Defence, are trying to push out the Crown Prince. And when he goes, the message continued, a problem becomes a crisis.
That is far from a fictional scenario. But possibility is always mixed with calculation: if the warning that the primary risk is the Crown Prince's future could take hold, then the --- arguably more immediate and, indeed, long-term --- risk to meaningful reform and change could be put in its proper place.
No need to make this about the political prisoners, the shadow of democracy, or the occasional body, riddled with birdshot, that winds up on a rooftop. After all, we're not selling them anti-tank missiles.
Yesterday, police used tear gas in Karzakan, after a mass rally calling for the release of detainees. Chances are they will use it somewhere else on the island today. And tomorrow. And next week.
But the US weapons will be shipped. The Crown Prince is bolstered. That, for all Hillary Clinton's rhetoric, is what matters here.