The Cable

U.S. Navy giving old boats to Bahrain government

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."

The Cable

Kyl vs. Russia: Round 2

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) announced in a hearing Thursday that he will mount an opposition to the repeal of U.S. trade sanctions on Russia, complicating the Obama administration's plan to repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law.

The administration has begun the process of repealing the sanctions law, which prevents the U.S. from granting Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status, which in turn prevents U.S. businesses from taking full advantage of Russia's recent accession to the WTO. But several lawmakers and leading Russian opposition figures believe the United States shouldn't do that without replacing those sanctions with the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 -- legislation meant to promote human rights in Russia that is named for the anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian prison, after allegedly being tortured, two years ago.

U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Mike McFaul said this week that the administration no longer believes any such "weird linkage" is necessary to accompany the repeal of Jackson-Vanik. But Kyl, who led the Senate opposition to the New START treaty with Russia in 2010, promised there would be a fight over the Jackson-Vanik issue this year in the Congress.

"It isn't a slam-dunk," Kyl said in a Thursday hearing of the Senate Finance Committee on the issue. "We still need to determine whether America is getting a good deal through Russia's WTO accession and whether more should be done to protect our interests."

Kyl said that Russia still hasn't ratified a bilateral investment treaty that would protect U.S. businesses there and complained that Russia fails to remit royalties to American firms, something not covered under WTO rules. He also said that Russia's "blatant disregard for human rights and the rule of law is every bit as relevant today as it was decades ago."

"Human rights cannot be divorced from the discussion of our economic relationship with Russia, particularly since some of the most egregious cases of abuse involve citizens exercising their economic and commercial rights," Kyl said, referring to the Magnitsky case by name and expressing his support of the legislation. He charged that McFaul was "simply denying reality" in rejecting a connection between human rights and economics.

"When two parties enter into a contract, it's essential that both parties operate in good faith," Kyl said. "There is scant evidence that the Russian state operates in good faith. There's a troubling pattern of intimidation, disregard for the rule of law, fraudulent elections, human rights abuses, and government-sanctioned anti-Americanism."

The hearing was stacked with representatives of the business community. The witnesses were Samuel Allen, chairman and CEO of Deere & Company, Ronald Pollett, president and CEO of GE Russia, Watty Taylor, president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, and Paul Williams, president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. It also included a long representative of the human rights community, Alan Larson, chairman of the board of Transparency International USA.

Committee chairman Max Baucus (R-MT), who traveled to Russia last month, is leading the drive in the Senate to repeal the law.

"Russia joining the World Trade Organization presents a lucrative opportunity for the United States economy and American jobs," Baucus said at the hearing. "We can all agree on that. We must all embrace rather than escape this opportunity."

"We must pass permanent normal trade relations, or PNTR, to ensure our exporters can access the growing Russian market," Baucus said. "If the United States passes PNTR with Russia, U.S. exports to Russia are projected to double within five years. If Congress doesn't pass PNTR, Russia will join the WTO anyway and U.S. exporters will lose out to their Chinese and European competitors."

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA), who is also a member of the Finance Committee, backed up Baucus at the hearing.

"I'd say to Senator Kyl and others who are sort of questioning this thing: We're still kind of talking past each other a little bit here and I think missing the point. Russia's going into the WTO," he said. "Russia's in the WTO. And if we don't lift Jackson-Vanik we're denying our own workers. That's all that happens here."

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