Tomorrow, the State Department will notify Congress that the U.S. Navy is handing over 19 patrol boats it's no longer using to the government of Bahrain, but the State Department says arms sales to that country are still on hold due to human rights concerns.
Today, officials from the State Department's Bureau of Political-Military Affairs and State's Legislative Affairs office briefed select congressional offices about their decision to transfer seven rigid-hull inflatable boats and 12 32-foot Boston Whaler boats from the U.S. Navy in Bahrain to the Bahrain government. Offices briefed ahead of the Friday formal notification included aides to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the offices of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-WY) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), two lawmakers who have been leading the congressional opposition to continued U.S. arms sales to Bahrain.
A proposed sale of $53 million of new weapons to Bahrain, including anti-tank missiles and armored Humvees, remains on hold due to persistent congressional opposition to selling Bahrain any weapons until it shows more progress in implementing reforms following alleged human rights abuses during last year's peaceful protests in the capital of Manama.
In January, the administration quietly went ahead with the shipment of some small military items to Bahrain that did not require congressional signoff because they were previously authorized or because they were below the $1 million threshold that triggers congressional notification. This transfer of boats is also not subject to congressional approval.
"This isn't a new package or policy decision. This is part of what was briefed to Congress in January. We are still maintaining a pause on most security cooperation for Bahrain pending further progress on reform," a State Department official told The Cable today. "The transfer of these boats are necessary to protect U.S. naval personnel and assets based in Bahrain. None of these items can be used against protestors. The transfer does not include any arms and the boats are intended for patrol missions, which is critical for ensuring a robust and layered defense of Bahrain's coast and for enhancing Bahrain's ability to counter maritime threats to U.S. and coalition vessels."
For critics of the Bahrain government's pace of reforms, the transfer of the boats does not place the Bahraini protesters in any direct danger, but it does reinforce the negative optics that surround U.S.-Bahrain defense cooperation in light of the recent violence against protesters. Human rights advocates also want the administration to be more open about such moves.
"This sale is consistent with the administration's argument that it would be making a series of small (under $1 million) sales for external defense needs in Bahrain," said Cole Bockenfeld, director of advocacy for the Project on Middle East Democracy. "At the time, they had not offered any detail of the contents of those sales, which led to an outcry from the ground in Bahrain over concerns that military equipment was supporting a regime using excessive force against internal dissent. It is absolutely essential to address these fears up front, and for the administration to communicate clearly and publicly the contents of any security assistance to Bahrain in a transparent manner."
Hill staffers see the move as a small reward intended to encourage the Bahrain government to keep on the path of reform. In recent weeks, Bahrain has taken steps that the United States has requested, including closing its embassy in Syria and announcing a code of conduct for police. But the Bahraini government has resisted more fundamental political and security reforms.
"State is trying to show appreciation for them changing but every time there is a step forward there is also one step backward," said a senior Senate aide close to the issue. "The administration is going to proceed with small sales, and they don't have to notify anybody. So there could be all kinds of things going to Bahrain that we just don't know about."
The aide said the administration's message to Congress is, "Have a nice day, thank you for your interest in Bahrain. It's just boats so it's no big deal."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.