Posted by on February 14, 2012 in Blog

Today marks the one year anniversary of the uprising in Bahrain, a conflict that in many ways encapsulates the myriad difficulties of the so-called Arab Spring. The uprising in Bahrain was fundamentally unlike those of its neighbors, not only in the initially moderate goals of the demonstrators, but more importantly, in the manner in which it was perceived and responded to by the international community.

The largely-peaceful demonstrations by those demanding greater democracy, accountability, and transparency were violently put down by the forces of the Gulf Cooperation Council, acting unilaterally and using the pretext of “Iranian intervention” to paint the majority-Shiite population as agents of a foreign state.

The initial wave of violence and arrests was followed by an even more troubling development: the systematic arrest of doctors, lawyers, and other ostensibly protected professionals who were accused of helping the victims of the crackdown. Sham trials and Orwellian televised “confessions” became the norm, and even the legally-sanctioned opposition parties suffered unprecedented scrutiny.

Though the initial response of the Bahraini government was in essence identical to that of other Arab states faced with similar revolutions, the response of the international community could not have been more different. Faced with a pronounced choice between adhering to our principles (democracy, justice, and the rule of law), and our short-term strategic interests (the naval fleet stationed in Bahrain, the need to isolate and disempower Iran), U.S. policymakers unabashedly chose the latter.

Despite some relatively mild condemnations of the crackdowns, the U.S. has done surprisingly little to rein in the excessive response of the Bahraini government, preferring to turn a blind eye to the ongoing repression of medical professionals, the arrest and deportation of American citizens, and the continued use of U.S. military hardware against peaceful demonstrators.

Most recently, the Obama administration signaled a willingness to push through a shipment of arms to the Bahraini government, despite objections from Bahraini activists, international human rights organizations, and members of Congress. The justification is ostensibly to provide a bulwark against Iran’s increasing belligerence, but it’s no secret how these weapons will likely be used: against the Bahraini people themselves.

As I’ve pointed out before, the apparent dichotomy between principles and interests is a false one; undermining our principles will almost always lead to long-term strategic repercussions. This case was no different: on every occasion that America has tried to assist other Arab revolts, its opponents – and sometimes even the very people it was supporting – have been quick to use Bahrain as an example of U.S. silence in the face of repression, arguing that the U.S. only stands with those from whom a strategic benefit can be derived. On top of this, Washington has given effectively given Bahrain carte blanche to ignore the political, economic, and social grievances that brought out the Bahraini people in the first place.

Though the actions are arguably most egregious in Bahrain, it is unfortunately not an isolated case. Tear gas shipments to Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and of course the sizable military aid to the Israeli state, are put to similar purposes. The repercussions of these decisions will undoubtedly color Arab perceptions of American foreign policy for some time to come.

The most important lesson from the revolutions of the previous year – now too bloody and battered to responsibly be considered a “spring” – is that foreign policy should be aimed at the people, and not only at their governments. This is particularly true if the government lacks the appropriate representational mechanisms to legitimately speak as a representative of said people. To do otherwise is to invite disaster. The current opinion of the Egyptian people toward the United States is proof positive that even though the U.S. government may not always pay attention to the Arab people, the Arab people are undoubtedly paying attention to the U.S. government. If policymakers don’t come to terms with this new reality, there’s nowhere to go but down.

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