Congress and the NGO community are gearing up to fight the Obama administration's plan to sell $53 million worth of weapons to Bahrain, which is proceeding on schedule despite that country's crackdown on protesters.
The State Department argued in its Sept. 14 notification to Congress that the proposed sale will contribute to U.S. national security "by helping to improve the security of a major non-NATO ally that has been, and continues to be, an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East."
The administration is planning to sell Bahrain 44 armored, high-mobility Humvees and over 300 advanced missiles, 50 of which are bunker-buster missiles similar to those sold secretly to Israel in 2009.
"Bahrain will use the enhanced capability as a deterrent to regional threats and to strengthen its homeland defense," the notification reads.
But the government of Bahrain, led by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, has been engaged in a months-long struggle with a predominantly Shiite protest movement. Opposition groups claim that 30 protesters have been killed by the government and more than 1,000 have been arrested. The government also called in a Saudi-led force in March that included dozens of tanks to bolster their position, effectively putting the country on lockdown.
Independent organizations such as Human Rights Watch have reported that the Bahrain government has used brutal tactics, including using masked thugs to sweep up lawyers and other activists in nighttime raids. Today, the government announced new trials for 20 medics whose long jail sentences provoked outrage in the international community.
"In Bahrain, steps have been taken toward reform and accountability,
but more are required,"
President Obama said in his Sept. 21 speech at the U.N. "America is a close friend of Bahrain, and we will continue to call on the government and the main opposition bloc - the Wifaq - to pursue a meaningful dialogue that brings peaceful change that is responsive to the people."
The Obama administration has several interests in Bahrain, the fact that the U.S. Fifth Fleet is stationed there being chief among them. Bahrain is also a client state of Saudi Arabia and policymakers have voiced fears that a victory by the protest movement would strengthen Iranian influence in the country.
Regardless, a growing group of lawmakers and non-governmental organizations are gearing up to oppose the State Department's plan to sell weapons to Bahrain. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) are circulating a resolution that would stop the sale from going through.
"Providing arms to a government that is actively committing human rights violations against peaceful protestors is at odds with United States foreign policy goals," Wyden told The Cable. "We should be promoting democracy and human rights in the region and not rewarding a regime that is jailing and in some cases killing those who choose to peacefully protest their government and anyone who supports them. This resolution will prevent the U.S. from providing the Kingdom of Bahrain with weaponry until they show a real commitment to respecting human rights."
"The Humvees are particularly worrisome for a regime that is quashing protests," said one Senate aide who works on the issue. "But the overall principle of selling arms to this regime as they use live ammunition to kill protesters is just awful and we're going to do what we can to try to stop it."
Other senior senators are just becoming aware of the issue, but their initial reactions are a mixture of concern and criticism of the Bahrain government.
"I'm cautious about empowering this regime now in Bahrain. The internal conflict in Bahrain needs to be settled," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told The Cable. "I'm not so sure I would go down that road right now [in terms of arms sales]."
"I didn't even we were doing that until you told me," Graham admitted, thanking your humble Cable guy for bringing the issue to his attention.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) also seemed conflicted about the idea of selling more weapons to Bahrain but declined to outright oppose the idea.
"I'm troubled by what's happened in Bahrain, but Bahrain has been a wonderful ally and our 5th Fleet there is critical to the security of the whole region," he told The Cable. "I'd be hesitant to cut off sales, but it is awkward now."
Senate Foreign Relations Middle East Subcommittee chairman Bob Casey (D-PA) also said he was concerned about the violence against protesters in Bahrain but didn't want to commit to a position about the arms sales either way.
"We're looking at it, because we want to do everything we can to hold a country like that to high standards," Casey told The Cable.
The big question is what Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) thinks. Kerry's committee has first crack at any resolution to oppose the sale, and the resolution's backers want his support. But -- despite Kerry's denials that he is seeking the secretary of state job -- he rarely picks fights with the White House in public. His office did not answer requests for comments on the topic.
Human Rights First, an international human rights organization, wrote an open letter to Kerry last month calling on him to oppose further arms sales to Bahrain.
"Stopping this arms sale to a country currently abusing the rights of its citizens is in step with your long record of opposition to arming tyrants," the letter states. "Arms sales to Bahrain at this time would contradict the United States' twin interests of regional stability and peaceful reform. If the United States aspires to be a global human rights leader... it should not reward the current repression with weapons."
The Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) also drafted a letter to Congress, signed by a dozen organizations including Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, urging Congress "to take immediate action to block a proposed arms sale to Bahrain until it ends abuses against peaceful protesters and takes meaningful steps toward political reform and accountability for recent and ongoing serious human rights violation."
Cole Bockenfeld, director of advocacy for POMED, told The Cable that the arms sale will have a devastating effect on U.S. credibility in the Arab world.
"The sale will unquestionably be perceived by both the government of Bahrain and those in the opposition as a green light for the government to continue its brutal repression," he said. "In the broader picture of the Arab Spring, this further erodes the credibility of U.S. rhetoric about democracy and human rights in the region."
UPDATE: Wyden introduced his resolution Thursday, a copy of which can be found here.