Commentary Magazine


Topic: Shi’ites

Is Administrative Federalism the Solution for Iraq?

While talking to Iraqi Sunnis disaffected with the Iraqi central government, it is easy to get sucked into discussions of the past: Many remain upset with the 2003 U.S. decision to disband the Iraqi Army, some complain about the way de-Baathification occurred, and many also complain about what they see as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s overly sectarian policies. Few put themselves in the position of the Iraqi Shi‘ites or recognize that after centuries of oppression, Shi‘ites aren’t going to subordinate themselves again to Sunni minority rule.

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While talking to Iraqi Sunnis disaffected with the Iraqi central government, it is easy to get sucked into discussions of the past: Many remain upset with the 2003 U.S. decision to disband the Iraqi Army, some complain about the way de-Baathification occurred, and many also complain about what they see as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s overly sectarian policies. Few put themselves in the position of the Iraqi Shi‘ites or recognize that after centuries of oppression, Shi‘ites aren’t going to subordinate themselves again to Sunni minority rule.

The most interesting conversations revolve around the future. There is a recognition even among Sunni Arab Iraqis most disaffected by the events of the last eleven years that there is no going back to the past, and that there is no way to simply re-impose a strong Sunni general “without blood on his hands” to restore order.

That said, Sunnis do not want to be dominated by Shi‘ites, and many Sunnis and Shi‘ites are increasingly frustrated with the sectarianism. While residents of al-Anbar, Ninewa, and Salahuddin have no desire to live under al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, they also do not wish to have those from outside their respective provinces come in to restore order. Anbaris no more want to be occupied by Basrawis than Basrawis would want to be occupied by Anbaris.

Earlier this week while brainstorming about ways forward, an Anbari professional from a prominent tribe made a persuasive case for administrative federalism in Iraq. It is an idea that I first heard while teaching in Iraqi Kurdistan in academic year 2000-2001, and one which I wrote about shortly thereafter in the New York Times and in a collection of essays (see p. 44) about Iraq published shortly before the war.

The idea is simple: Rather than divide Iraq according to ethnic or sectarian characteristics as per then-Senator Joe Biden’s plan—a recipe for chaos and ethnic cleansing in mixed areas—the center of gravity of governance should devolve to each province which would be awarded a proportion of Iraq’s oil revenue according to its share of the population. At present, some money is awarded to each province according to its population, but the center of gravity remains in Baghdad and with the centralized ministries. Iraqis resent Baghdad and national political parties, however, and should not have to rely on them for every decision, especially when they are not accountable to any specific constituency. While defense, foreign policy, and oil infrastructure might be the domain of the central government, putting provincial (or even district) leaders in charge of other aspects of governance will bring government closer to the people. Moslawis will determine what happens in Mosul and they will police Mosul. The buck will stop with local politicians who will no longer be able to blame their own incompetence on Baghdad or excuse corruption by suggesting the money disappeared in Baghdad.

When the idea was debated in the months before the war, Kurdish leader Masud Barzani opposed it fiercely because he saw federalism based on provinces as undercutting his authority over the Kurdistan Region which was comprised at the time by three provinces. So be it: The Kurds can have their trans-provincial federal unit should they choose to remain inside Iraq.

And when it came to putting together Iraq’s fiscal year 2004 budget, Patrick Kennedy—Bremer’s chief of staff and administrative guru—vetoed proposals to allow governorates to develop their budgets separate from the central government because it would be administratively inconvenient, and could complicate planning for the Coalition Provisional Authority’s plans for a donor conference. In effect, for a meaningless diplomatic event, that decision undercut local representation and reinforced centralization which many Iraqis outside of the ruling party now resent. Perhaps it’s time to reverse that mistake of a decade ago, and encourage Iraqis to allow greater administrative autonomy on a provincial basis rather than on an ethnic or sectarian one.

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Iran Exposes Its Achilles’ Heel

It is naïve and dangerously sectarian to assume—as American analysts who view Iraq through the military’s lens so often do—that Iraqi Shi‘ites are Fifth columnists, somehow more loyal to Iran than to Iraq. The simple fact of the matter is that the Shi‘ites are as much if not more victims of the Iranian regime as others. Because the interpretation of Shi‘ism that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini imposed on Iran is outside the mainstream, the Islamic Republic is especially sensitive to theological dissent coming from Shi‘ites themselves. (I detail the theology behind this and give several examples in this 2008 book chapter from Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion).

Yesterday, Al-Sharqiyah, a London-based Iraqi television station, reported (and the Open Source Center translates an excerpt):

Sources from Al-Najaf Governorate, southwestern Iraq, have revealed that the Iranian authorities have arrested Iraqi Religious Scholar Ahmad al-Qubanshi, who is currently on a visit to Iran. Neither the sources, nor the Iranian authorities revealed the reasons behind the arrest of Al-Qubanshi. Al-Qubanshi is known for publishing, throughout the past thirty years, many books and studies in which he severely criticized the Iranian regime and the means of running Iran’s affairs.

Regimes that have self-confidence do not arrest those who express dissent.

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It is naïve and dangerously sectarian to assume—as American analysts who view Iraq through the military’s lens so often do—that Iraqi Shi‘ites are Fifth columnists, somehow more loyal to Iran than to Iraq. The simple fact of the matter is that the Shi‘ites are as much if not more victims of the Iranian regime as others. Because the interpretation of Shi‘ism that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini imposed on Iran is outside the mainstream, the Islamic Republic is especially sensitive to theological dissent coming from Shi‘ites themselves. (I detail the theology behind this and give several examples in this 2008 book chapter from Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion).

Yesterday, Al-Sharqiyah, a London-based Iraqi television station, reported (and the Open Source Center translates an excerpt):

Sources from Al-Najaf Governorate, southwestern Iraq, have revealed that the Iranian authorities have arrested Iraqi Religious Scholar Ahmad al-Qubanshi, who is currently on a visit to Iran. Neither the sources, nor the Iranian authorities revealed the reasons behind the arrest of Al-Qubanshi. Al-Qubanshi is known for publishing, throughout the past thirty years, many books and studies in which he severely criticized the Iranian regime and the means of running Iran’s affairs.

Regimes that have self-confidence do not arrest those who express dissent.

While Iran makes no secret of its arrest of political dissidents, Iraq’s liberation has opened up the Pandora’s Box of religious dissent: Most Shi’ite scholars do not accept the notion the Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, is the “deputy of the Messiah on Earth.” Remove that claim, and the whole Iranian system collapses on itself. This is the reason why the Islamic Republic kept the late Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri under house arrest until his death, and also Ayatollah Kazemini Boroujerdi.

Several years ago, I penned a proposal in The Washington Post that the United States should establish a consulate in Najaf. While the idea received bipartisan support from Iraq analysts, the idea went nowhere in Foggy Bottom.  Alas, maintaining outreach to independent Shi‘ites has never been more important, not only for Iraq and those in Lebanon suffering under Hezbollah’s yoke, but also in Iran itself.

There are lots of things that have to occur if there is ever to be peace in the Middle East, but the first thing has to be the collapse of the Iranian regime. That will never happen with muddle through reform, and it will not happen if the United States blindly follows Turkey and Saudi Arabia and acts more Sunni than the Sunnis. Such partisan games on the part of the State Department and U.S. military only strengthen Iran’s hand among the Shi’ites by allowing Iranian leaders to claim a role as protectors of Shi’ites.  Instead, peace will only have a chance—or at least the malevolent role Iran plays in the region will cease—when Shi‘ite scholars let Khamenei know that Iran’s turbaned emperor has no clothes.

How can the White House or Congress make this happen? Speaking out on behalf of Qubanshi’s freedom would be a good place to start.

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On Assad, Obama is Repeating Bush 41′s Saddam Mistake

On February 15, 1991, at a campaign stop in Ohio, President George H.W. Bush called for “the Iraqi people [to] take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein the dictator to step aside.” Saddam was a dangerous tyrant and would have to go. But, Bush’s re-election campaign was hot and heavy at the time and focused on the economy, not foreign policy. Bush’s national security advisers—some of whom now praise President Obama and castigate Mitt Romney’s team—did not want to entangle the United States in a prolonged conflict, and so the United States stood aside as Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guards—many just days after their release from U.S. custody—mowed down Iraqi Shi’ites.

Fast forward a decade. The Syrian people rise up. At first, Secretary of State Clinton maintains the fiction that Bashar al-Assad is a reformer. If that’s what career diplomats were telling her, it should put an end to the nonsense that having an embassy in the country improves intelligence about it. But then again, diplomats said the same thing about Saddam Hussein. As a young Iraq desk officer, for example, Frank Ricciardone—today serving as U.S. ambassador to Turkey—pushed relentlessly for U.S. rapprochement with Saddam Hussein.

Clinton, however, changed tack as Assad’s massacres accelerated. “We think Assad must go,” she told ABC News two months ago in the wake of the Istanbul “Friends of the Syrian People Conference.” Just over a week ago, she said, “The Assad regime’s brutality against its own people must and will end.”  There is nothing more dangerous than promoting Assad’s ouster and then standing by when the Syrian people rise up and get massacred.

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On February 15, 1991, at a campaign stop in Ohio, President George H.W. Bush called for “the Iraqi people [to] take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein the dictator to step aside.” Saddam was a dangerous tyrant and would have to go. But, Bush’s re-election campaign was hot and heavy at the time and focused on the economy, not foreign policy. Bush’s national security advisers—some of whom now praise President Obama and castigate Mitt Romney’s team—did not want to entangle the United States in a prolonged conflict, and so the United States stood aside as Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guards—many just days after their release from U.S. custody—mowed down Iraqi Shi’ites.

Fast forward a decade. The Syrian people rise up. At first, Secretary of State Clinton maintains the fiction that Bashar al-Assad is a reformer. If that’s what career diplomats were telling her, it should put an end to the nonsense that having an embassy in the country improves intelligence about it. But then again, diplomats said the same thing about Saddam Hussein. As a young Iraq desk officer, for example, Frank Ricciardone—today serving as U.S. ambassador to Turkey—pushed relentlessly for U.S. rapprochement with Saddam Hussein.

Clinton, however, changed tack as Assad’s massacres accelerated. “We think Assad must go,” she told ABC News two months ago in the wake of the Istanbul “Friends of the Syrian People Conference.” Just over a week ago, she said, “The Assad regime’s brutality against its own people must and will end.”  There is nothing more dangerous than promoting Assad’s ouster and then standing by when the Syrian people rise up and get massacred.

We still pay for the legacy of the elder Bush’s error. The Iraqi Shi’ites, who celebrated their liberation from Saddam and who just three years earlier had been fighting Iran, had little choice but to seek Iran’s protective embrace. Saddam put down the revolt and, during the subsequent 12 years, organized some Shi’ites into the Badr Corps and other radically anti-American militias.

By encouraging—however belatedly—a revolt in Syria and then stepping aside, the Obama administration is following the elder Bush’s playbook to the letter. While many in the Iraqi opposition fell under Iran’s sway, the longer the Obama administration waits in Syria, the more entrenched al-Qaeda ideologues become. And, if history repeats itself, then by allowing such a huge gap to develop between his administration’s rhetoric and the reality of its policy, President Obama is encouraging the most cynical anti-American conspiracy theories to become public perception, and risking Syria becoming a source of instability for years to come.

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Saudi Confederation Plans a Bad Idea

Every few years, the Saudi government proposes to remake the Gulf Cooperation Council by replacing it with a federation; in a way, a United States of Arabia. The proposals have never gone anywhere. Saudi Arabia is the big kid on the block and the neighborhood bully: No one wants to be second fiddle to the Saudis, nor do citizens of the Persian Gulf emirates want to sacrifice their freedoms to conform to the Saudi way of life.

That’s all changing now, as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia move forward with economic and social union. The reason is largely sectarian: The Shi’ites are the majority in Bahrain, and protests have evolved to the point where the Sunni-led royal family is no longer able to make the reforms Shi’ite political leaders demand. By joining a confederation, the Bahraini royal family can purchase further Saudi largesse and involve Saudi forces even more directly in quashing unrest.

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Every few years, the Saudi government proposes to remake the Gulf Cooperation Council by replacing it with a federation; in a way, a United States of Arabia. The proposals have never gone anywhere. Saudi Arabia is the big kid on the block and the neighborhood bully: No one wants to be second fiddle to the Saudis, nor do citizens of the Persian Gulf emirates want to sacrifice their freedoms to conform to the Saudi way of life.

That’s all changing now, as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia move forward with economic and social union. The reason is largely sectarian: The Shi’ites are the majority in Bahrain, and protests have evolved to the point where the Sunni-led royal family is no longer able to make the reforms Shi’ite political leaders demand. By joining a confederation, the Bahraini royal family can purchase further Saudi largesse and involve Saudi forces even more directly in quashing unrest.

The move is short-sighted, however. Not only may it change the comparatively liberal character for which Bahrain is known, at least relative to the other Persian Gulf states, but it will also hasten the spread of sectarian unrest into Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is, after all, an artificial country. (Like “Petoria” in the television show “Family Guy,” any country is artificial when it’s named after a person). The Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia is overwhelmingly Shi’ite, and quite resentful of Wahhabi rule.

Western journalists and human rights activists condemn the Bahraini government repeatedly for its crackdown because, despite Bahraini efforts to restrict access, Bahrain is a far freer society than Saudi Arabia, and so observers can witness the clashes between the government and opposition (as I did in February). Also, major organizations like Human Rights Watch may be loathe to condemn Saudi authorities, because they solicit money from the Saudis and so may compromise their integrity to pay their bills. While Bahraini security forces are relatively restrained – using mostly rubber bullets and tear gas – in the absence of international presence and attention Saudi forces have no such self-restraint, and favor live ammunition. After confederation, however, Bahraini Shi’ites will not waste a day before beginning to export their “best practices” to their Saudi Shi’ite brethren.

Other American allies in the region will also begin to feel pressure to choose sides. During a  recent trip to Kuwait, Kuwaitis explained it to me like this: Traditionally, countries like Kuwait and Qatar have survived by playing the two regional giants—Saudi Arabia and Iran—off each other. By forming a federation with Saudi Arabia, the emirates and kingdoms transform themselves into the designated space for proxy war. After all, if Bahrain becomes in effect Saudi, then the easiest place to target the Saudis is in Bahrain.

And while many elite foreign policy and military officials cultivate close relations with the Saudis, the Kingdom is far from a good ally. That Saudis formed the bulk of the 9/11 plot was not an accident; it was a direct result of the Saudi education system. And, when the going got tough, the Saudis kicked most American forces out of the country—something they might get tempted to do if they were to absorb Bahrain or Kuwait.

The best way forward for Bahrain is not confederation with Saudi Arabia, nor is it arms packages for anything else than defending the tiny island Kingdom from the Iranian threat. Rather, the course for U.S. policy would be to encourage quick and meaningful reform, and uncompromised Bahraini independence.

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It’s Not Maliki Pushing Iraq into Civil War

Max Boot pushes back on my post and suggests that Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s recent actions consolidating power risk are pushing Iraq into a civil war. I certainly worry about instability in Iraq, but it is wrong to suggest that Maliki’s attempts to govern would be the cause.

First, it’s important to define where we agree: Both of us see the U.S. withdrawal as costly. It undercut U.S. leverage, and privileged Iran. Both of us are deeply suspicious of Iran. I make no secret of my belief that the United States should do nothing that throws a lifeline to Tehran and, indeed, should do everything possible to undermine the Iranian regime. That said, while I understand that Max’s view is conventional wisdom in many U.S. military circles, I am as unconvinced about Max’s argument as he is about mine.

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Max Boot pushes back on my post and suggests that Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s recent actions consolidating power risk are pushing Iraq into a civil war. I certainly worry about instability in Iraq, but it is wrong to suggest that Maliki’s attempts to govern would be the cause.

First, it’s important to define where we agree: Both of us see the U.S. withdrawal as costly. It undercut U.S. leverage, and privileged Iran. Both of us are deeply suspicious of Iran. I make no secret of my belief that the United States should do nothing that throws a lifeline to Tehran and, indeed, should do everything possible to undermine the Iranian regime. That said, while I understand that Max’s view is conventional wisdom in many U.S. military circles, I am as unconvinced about Max’s argument as he is about mine.

Max sees sectarian motives underlying Maliki’s actions against both Tariq al-Hashimi and Saleh Mutlaq; I see merit behind the charges on Hashimi, against whom INTERPOL recently issued a “red notice” at the Iraqi government’s request. Mutlaq is more sympathetic to Baathism—and Sunni Arab supremicism—and laments that the privileges Sunni Arabs assumed in the years before 2003 are gone, and would not think twice about a coup in Iraq if he could. To force Maliki to embrace Mutlaq would be akin to demanding Obama make room for David Duke.

Max suggests that selectively pursuing charges against Hashimi but not against Shi’ite firebrand Moqtada al Sadr exposes the sectarian nature of the charges. I would note, however, that Sadr hardly remains on Maliki’s side and, indeed, represents one of the Shi’ite factions which Maliki also battles. Indeed, one of the unanswered questions regarding Operation Iraqi Freedom is who in the Bush administration made the decision to shield Sadr from the justice which U.S. forces were prepared to serve.

With regard to Ali Mussa Daqduq, a Shi’ite who was responsible for the murder of five U.S. soldiers in 2007, Max and I agree he should not go free. A few points, however: While the article Max cites says he is not yet released from prison, there is an open question about whether the United States turned over the evidence the Iraqi court required. If, by ignoring the Iraqi court’s request, we made it easy for the court to release him on a technicality, then heads should roll in the White House, at Langley, or in the Pentagon. Regardless, it is inane that we released such a man from our custody in the first place. We should not be surprised that Iraqi courts are more likely to prioritize cases involving Iraqi victims than U.S. soldiers. If there was ever a case, however, for extraordinary rendition—or targeted assassination—Daqduq is it. If the Iraqi government releases Daqduq, it would be unfortunate if he takes more than a dozen steps before he is enveloped by pink mist.

There is a tendency among Hashimi, Mutlaq, and others to warn darkly of a return to civil war if their demands are not met. Legitimizing such blackmail will only lead to more violence. If Hashimi and Mutlaq’s forces wished, they could urge votes of no confidence in the government as Mutlaq himself has threatened. It is far easier to win a vote of no confidence under the Iraqi system than form a government, but Ayad Allawi, Hashimi’s supporters, and Mutlaq know they cannot do either, and so they threaten violence and come crying to the Saudis, Jordanians, and Americans. Suggesting that Maliki is pursuing a sectarian agenda but that Hashimi and Mutlaq’s actions are somehow noble is backward.

Undo sympathy toward Hashimi and Mutlaq replicates the mistakes of 2004, when General Petraeus sought not only to forcibly integrate but also empower unrepentant Baathists and Sunni Islamists in Mosul, only to have them betray U.S. forces and the Iraqi government and cast their lot with the insurgency. Validating men like Hashimi and Mutlaq will do more to undercut reconciliation and set Iraq down the path toward civil war than anything Maliki has done. I have yet to meet a politician from al-Anbar who will not quietly argue that there should be some sort of “do over” and that empowering a Sunni Iraqi general “without blood on his hands” is the best way forward. None has ever been able to name such a general from outside their immediate family or clan, however. Max points out that regional Arab papers publishing articles such as this shape perceptions, but the Saudis, Emiratis, Kuwaitis, and Qataris are unapologetic about their sectarian perspective and work overtime to delegitimize the Iraqi government on purely sectarian grounds. Nothing Maliki can do will change their perspective, and he is correct to understand that making undo concessions to Saudi Arabia is never wise.

The Shi’ites are the majority in Iraq; it is not sectarian for one Shi’ite or another to run Iraq. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the Iraqi Shi’ites are necessarily pro-Iranian. After all, during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, it wasn’t the privileged sons of Tikrit who manned the trenches against the Iranian army, but rather the Iraqi Shi’ite conscripts. They hated Saddam, but fought for Iraq against the Iranian hordes. When I was last in Najaf about a year and a half ago, I was fortunate to have separate audiences with three of the Grand Ayatollahs resident there. Each made reference to the elder Bush administration’s 1991 “abandonment” of the Iraqi Shi’ite uprising and how the United States appeared to be replicating those mistakes. When we empower Baathists or abandon the Shi’ites, we simply drive them into Iran’s embrace. Indeed, this is the tragedy of President Obama’s abandonment of Iraq: Maliki preserved independence of action by complaining to the Iranians about American red lines and vice versa. By leaving Iraq completely, Obama has undercut Maliki’s ability to resist Iranian pressure.

So where should we go from here? Rather than handicap Maliki’s ability to govern, we should focus U.S. policy on ensuring that his government holds itself accountable to the Iraqi electorate in 2014, as scheduled. Perhaps if Allawi and Mutlaq spent more time campaigning inside Iraq as they do in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, London, and on K Street, Iraqis would view them a bit more sympathetically.

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Will Maliki Push Iraq Back into Civil War?

I commend Michael Rubin for challenging conventional wisdom about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s power grab in Iraq. He argues that what we are seeing is a commendable consolidation of power rather than the alarming sings of incipient authoritarianism. While I am intrigued by his argument, I am not convinced.

It is hard to see anything but sectarian motives in the criminal charges filed against Vice President Tariq al Hashemi, a Sunni, and Maliki’s attempt to remove from office Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al Mutlaq, another Sunni, for, ironically, criticizing Maliki for his dictatorial tendencies. There are widespread reports that Hashemi’s bodyguards implicated him after having been subjected to torture by security forces.  Read More

I commend Michael Rubin for challenging conventional wisdom about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s power grab in Iraq. He argues that what we are seeing is a commendable consolidation of power rather than the alarming sings of incipient authoritarianism. While I am intrigued by his argument, I am not convinced.

It is hard to see anything but sectarian motives in the criminal charges filed against Vice President Tariq al Hashemi, a Sunni, and Maliki’s attempt to remove from office Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al Mutlaq, another Sunni, for, ironically, criticizing Maliki for his dictatorial tendencies. There are widespread reports that Hashemi’s bodyguards implicated him after having been subjected to torture by security forces. 

Michael suggests that Hashemi may well be guilty of the charges against him which involve various abuses committed by his bodyguards. But such charges could be filed against the bodyguards of any prominent political figure in Iraq; almost all of them were guilty of excesses of one sort or another during Iraq’s dark years (2003-2008). It is hardly credible to prosecute Hashemi now while not filing any charges against, say, Moqtada al Sadr, a Shi’ite firebrand whose followers were responsible for mass atrocities. Or to file charges against Hashemi while releasing from prison Ali Mussa Daqduq, a Lebanese Hezbollah commander (and hence a Shi’ite) who was responsible for the murder of five U.S. soldiers in 2007.

All of this looks like Maliki is carrying out a personal and sectarian agenda, backed by Iranian agents, to consolidate power through his Shi’ite cronies while freezing out opposing Shi’ite factions, Sunnis, and Kurds. Michael may disagree, but it ultimately doesn’t matter how things look to outsiders like us. What counts far more is that Sunnis in Iraq–and outside of it see this, with considerable evidence, as an affront to their dignity and freedom and possibly a threat to their lives. Sunnis will not allow themselves to be pushed around indefinitely; Maliki has gotten away with his moves so far, in part because of the disunity of the opposition, but sooner or later he may go too far and push Iraq back into a civil war.

That is precisely why some of us wanted to keep U.S. troops in Iraq past 2011–to act as a check on the tendencies of all factions in Iraq to go too far and trigger a devastating backlash. With our troops now gone we have far less leverage to affect the situation, but we must still use what influence we have to convince Maliki to pursue a more moderate course and not run roughshod over Iraq’s fragile democratic institutions.

 

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U.S. Must Push for Reforms in Bahrain

So Bahrain managed to hold its much-heralded Grand Prix auto race last weekend without significant disruption–but only because of a massive security presence on the roads. The weekend was a turbulent one, with a protester getting shot and killed and opposition groups alleging that the government was responsible. His funeral drew 15,000 people and was punctuated by attacks on police stations.

Having recently returned from a few days in this tiny Persian Gulf kingdom, I can’t say I’m surprised. While I was there, the news was full of reports of Molotov cocktails being tossed at police cars and various other clashes–all of this happening, mind you, more than a year after the outbreak of pro-democracy protests in February 2011. Those protests were crushed in March with the help of Saudi security forces whose armored vehicles rumbled across the causeway into neighboring Bahrain. But the discontent that led to the outbreak has not gone away. It continues to be expressed in both peaceful protests and violent attacks.

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So Bahrain managed to hold its much-heralded Grand Prix auto race last weekend without significant disruption–but only because of a massive security presence on the roads. The weekend was a turbulent one, with a protester getting shot and killed and opposition groups alleging that the government was responsible. His funeral drew 15,000 people and was punctuated by attacks on police stations.

Having recently returned from a few days in this tiny Persian Gulf kingdom, I can’t say I’m surprised. While I was there, the news was full of reports of Molotov cocktails being tossed at police cars and various other clashes–all of this happening, mind you, more than a year after the outbreak of pro-democracy protests in February 2011. Those protests were crushed in March with the help of Saudi security forces whose armored vehicles rumbled across the causeway into neighboring Bahrain. But the discontent that led to the outbreak has not gone away. It continues to be expressed in both peaceful protests and violent attacks.

In Bahrain, as in many other places around the Middle East, the dispute over political reform cannot be separated from sectarian disputes, as the ruling al Khalifa royal family is Sunni and the majority of their subjects are Shi’ites who feel impoverished and disenfranchised. Law and order is maintained by overwhelmingly Sunni security forces, many of them of immigrants from other Middle Eastern and South Asian countries, further fueling discontent among impoverished native Shi’ites.

Always present is the specter of Iran, the giant Shi’ite state which lies only a few miles away from Bahrain across the Persian (of if you prefer Arabian) Gulf. The Bahraini and Saudi royals insist on seeing all demonstrations as an Iranian plot, even though no evidence of Iran’s hand at work has been uncovered. Nevertheless, there is cause to fear that complete chaos in Bahrain could play into Iran’s hands.

Moreover, from the U.S. perspective, there is even more direct cause to favor the status quo: Bahrain is home to the Fifth Fleet and the naval headquarters for Central Command. The Bahrainis are very cooperative and hospitable hosts, allowing the U.S. nearly complete freedom of movement. That would not be easy to achieve elsewhere in the region if the Fifth Fleet headquarters had to move–and that would be a costly undertaking in any case given the fact that the U.S. has built so much infrastructure in Bahrain already.

Yet the U.S. cannot simply turn a blind eye to the repressive practices of an ally, which would discredit our promotion of democracy elsewhere in the region. To its credit, the Bahraini government commissioned a credible independent review of its human rights abuses, led by a widely respected Egyptian-American law professor. However, the government has not fully implemented the commission’s reports, and there are still many troubling reports of the security forces continuing to torture perceived troublemakers.

While Riyadh will use its influence to block any liberal reforms, the U.S. must use our considerable sway–including the provisions of weapons to the Bahraini armed forces–to push the Bahrainis toward curbing their security forces and initiating dialogue with the main opposition group, al Wefaq. Its demands for greater democracy are reasonable, and it is not even calling for the ouster of the royal family. Rather, it seeks a constitutional monarchy which would be a first in the Gulf region. The model could be Morocco where the king is introducing democracy while for the time being keeping control of the military and foreign policy.

Accomplishing this would probably require the ouster of Bahrain’s hard-line prime minister who is widely seen as an obstacle to reform, which has been championed by the American-educated crown prince. It would be premature and counterproductive, as some suggest, to remove the Fifth Fleet from Bahrain, but we must do more to push for the type of reforms that can head off a future explosion. The examples to avoid are Iran in 1979 and Egypt in 2011: in both cases the U.S. gave carte blanche to dictators for years, making inevitable a revolution harmful to American strategic interests. Difficult actions are needed now in Bahrain to avoid a potential catastrophe down the road.

 

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