Faced with the task of nominating the most dispiriting thing about American politics today, one finds oneself in the predicament of the man handed a cocktail menu at an open bar; his thoughts unable to organise themselves as the sheer breadth and richness of the selection overwhelms him. Is it the charade of the ‘Democrat’-‘Republican’ dichotomy, opposed to one another in theory but so uncannily similar in practice? Is it the way this dialectic - tenuous enough to begin with - is further diluted and decaffeinated by a culture that prizes the path of least resistance, and least ‘offense’, and precludes all real progress by its dogmas of ‘consensus politics’ and ‘bipartisanship’? Might it be the banana-republic populism that can disqualify a presidential candidate for being too educated, and is ready to forgive a man any transgression, and overlook any shortcoming, so long as he loudly proclaims his faith in the Almighty? These defects have a long history, and are probably systemic and ineradicable. What I would say is worst today, however, is the gargantuan foreign policy opportunity slipping through the fumbling fingers of a political class whose understanding of the Middle East increasingly appears to be less sophisticated than even its cretinous predecessor’s. For while Republican candidates bicker among themselves over whose fealty to Israel is the more fanatical, what they ought to be paying far closer attention to are the events that have unfolded in Bahrain. It is here, more than anywhere else in the region, that the Arab people are seeing in broad daylight exactly how much substance and integrity there were in Obama’s promise in Cairo in 2009 of a “new beginning” for American-Arab relations, and a “commitment [...] to governments that reflect the will of the people”.
At first glance, Bahrain might not look so bad. ‘Only’ around 35 people have been killed: nothing like the more than 5,000 dead in Syria. While live ammunition has been fired from the beginning; when one Ali Almeshaima was killed by a shotgun to the back on 14 February; for the most part, the state has ‘merely’ used rubber bullets and tear gas – not quite the fighter jets deployed by Qaddafi. Unlike their Libyan and Syrian counterparts, the Bahraini opposition does not appear to be armed. And no psychopathic pledges to ‘die a martyr’ or references to demonstrators as ‘rats’ have been heard from King Hamad al-Khalifa, who has at least gone through the motions of contrition and reform – apologising for deaths; pardoning a few prisoners; pledging legislative amendments; and commissioning the independent 500-page ‘Bassiouni’ report on the events since February.
However, this kind of bookkeeping ignores the much larger moral and geopolitical point, which is that unlike Qaddafi or Mubarak, who were – eventually – abandoned by Washington, al-Khalifa remains a treasured American ally and business partner (Bahrain being, of course, the home of the Fifth Fleet, the largest American naval base outside its own waters). Worse, al-Khalifa’s fellow American allies, the mirthless monarchs of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, have sent as many as 5,000 troops from their joint ‘Peninsula Shield’ coalition to lend a helping hand to the crackdown. All of a sudden, in other words, and for all the world to see, it is precisely those regimes with which the Americans are most friendly that are the ones ruthlessly trampling the budding sprouts of democracy. This is a betrayal that the Arab people are unlikely to forget in a hurry.
The consequences of this sordid business are difficult to overstate, and will be making themselves known and felt for years to come. Most immediately there is, of course, the human cost. Yes, ‘only’ thirty-five have been killed. But this is merely the extreme end of a much broader spectrum of state-sponsored violence, including but not limited to torture, beatings, gassings and a plethora of other heavy-handed ‘punishments’ documented in cold print in the Bassiouni report. It tells us quite a lot, does it not, that five of the thirty-five deaths have been directly attributed to torture - the forms of which have ranged from sleep deprivation and stress positions to sexual assaults and enforced eating of faeces to good old-fashioned kickings and beatings to the pornographic stuff of lashings, burnings and electrocutions. And of course for each of the more than 500 victims of this mediaeval savagery there is a family without a child or parent, typically denied all contact with the relative or any knowledge of their whereabouts in what are just two of many instances of what the report calls “violation of due process”.
And then, what is potentially far worse, there is the exacerbation of the Middle East’s most ancient malady: sectarian enmity. It would be an incurious mind that failed to notice that the Bahraini, Saudi, Emirati and Qatari leaders share a common interpretation of Islam, while a different set of politicians – the Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian potentates – profess belief in rival strains of the faith. Similarly, it would take a witless observer to miss that Washington is on better terms with the former bunch than the latter. Not unlike the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, the Bahraini monarchy welds the twin bigotries of sectarianism and ethnic chauvinism; being an exclusively Sunni tribe of Saudi descent ruling over a mix of Sunni and Shia, variously of Ajam, Baharna and Howala ethnicity. It’s no secret that the Bahraini Shia majority have long been de facto second-class citizens in their own country. One of the least encouraging findings of the Bassiouni report was that every Shia detained by the government without exception “made allegations of routine sectarian insults, which included insults relating to Shia religious practices and their religious and political leader”. Not that the attacks were merely verbal – astoundingly, the report documents the state-sponsored demolition of more than forty Shia mosques and shrines in recent months. For the Americans to side with this rabidly sectarian regime – a relic, like so many others, of the British empire – is not only plainly unjust but reckless to the point of lunacy. Good grief, is it any wonder that Muqtada al-Sadr and Hassan Nasrallah are popular?! Surely the dimmest intelligence can see what this perceived American bias toward Sunni populations will do to the country, and one groans with the familiarity of it all when one reads in the Bassiouni report of random Shia reprisal attacks against Sunni civilians. Nor do the prospects appear more promising anywhere else in the region, what with the fatal clashes last month in the Shia eastern province of Saudi Arabia. God help us all if and when this spreads to the powder kegs of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Consider now Nicholas Kristof’s article in the New York Times last week, ‘Repressing Democracy, With American Arms’, in which he cites the astonishing information that Obama may soon be approving a $53 million arms sale to the al-Khalifa regime. The writer and photographer Matthew Cassel, who has kept up a fine campaign on Bahrain at Al Jazeera and the Lebanese Al-Akhbar, has several times remarked on the ‘Made in USA’ inscriptions on the tear gas canisters lining the streets. What a very ugly footnote to Obama’s worthless legacy. To be propping up and arming a British-installed client dictator in protection of naval and energy interests is not something that may be brushed aside as realpolitik – it is nothing less than naked imperialism. What other word is there for it? How else can the hard facts be explained? This is naked imperialism, of a sort that invites dark comparisons with the Pahlavis and Farouks of yesteryear. Any lingering goodwill on the Arab ‘street’ that Obama might have been able to salvage, after three years of supine subservience to an outrageously hostile Israeli government, has met a bloody death in Bahrain. How bitter it is to think how different it could have been, and how very hard it will be to undo the damage and dishonour this time.