The Cable

Bipartisan push for easing sanctions on Burma

Senators from both parties are now urging the Obama administration to drastically scale back U.S. sanctions on Burma in light of that country's moves toward reform and democratization.

Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ), who has traveled to Burma twice in the past year, announced Monday morning that he now support the "suspension" of a host of sanctions against Burma and the ruling regime.

"Another major test for U.S. diplomacy is Burma," McCain said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I have traveled to Burma twice over the past year. And to be sure, they still have a long way to go, especially in stopping the violence and pursuing genuine reconciliation with the country's ethnic minority communities. But the Burmese President and his allies in the government I believe are sincere about reform, and they are making real progress."

McCain praised the April elections that brought Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and many members of the National League for Democracy into power, despite some irregularities, and said they warranted U.S. temporary lifting of all economic sanctions except for the arms embargo against the Burmese military and targeted sanctions against individuals who have undermined human rights and the rule of law there.

"This would not be a lifting of sanctions, just a suspension. And this step, as well as any additional easing of sanctions, would depend on continued progress and reform in Burma," McCain cautioned.

He said the United States also must set up a regime for ensuring corporate responsibility in Burma as its economy opens and argued that U.S. businesses should still be barred from interacting with Burmese state-owned enterprises due to the risk of enriching hard-liners inside the Burmese system who are resisting reforms.

"U.S. businesses will never win a race to the bottom with some of their Asian, or even European, competitors. And they should not try," McCain said. "Rather, they should align themselves with Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burmese people -- who want the kinds of responsible investment, high labor and environmental standards, and support for human rights and national sovereignty that define American business at its best."

McCain joins Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, who came out May 4 for lifting all economic sanctions against Burma in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that was also signed by his subcommittee counterpart Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK). Webb made his third trip to Burma in April.

"At this critical moment, it is imperative that our policy toward Burma be forward thinking, providing incentives for further reforms and building the capacity of reformers in the government to push for additional change," Webb and Inhofe wrote. "We urge the Administration to take action under its own authority, and seize this opportunity to support the Burmese people in their efforts to form an open, democratic government that respects and protects the rights of all."

The administration has made several small concessions to the Burmese following Clinton's trip there last December, such as nominating Derek Mitchell to become the first U.S. ambassador to Burma in more than 20 years and restarting U.S.-Burmese cooperation on some development and counternarcotics programs.

In testimony before Webb's subcommittee on April 26, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Joe Yun detailed the administration's actions to date, noting ongoing concern about the Burmese regime's failings in the areas of human rights, and said the administration would take a slow but steady approach to easing sanctions further.

"We continue to emphasize that much work remains to be done in Burma and that easing sanctions will remain a step-by-step process. We have pursued a carefully calibrated posture, retaining as much flexibility as possible should reforms slow or reverse, while pressing the Burmese government for further progress in key areas," Yun said.

"We have serious and continuing concerns with respect to human rights, democracy, and nonproliferation, and our policy continues to blend both pressure and engagement to encourage progress in all areas."

The Cable

Obama administration seeks to bolster Bahraini crown prince with arms sales

Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa came to Washington this week to attend his son's college graduation, but he left with hands full of gifts from the U.S. State Department, which announced new arms sales to Bahrain today.

The crown prince's son just graduated from American University, where the Bahraini ruling family recently shelled out millions for a new building at AU's School of International Service. But while he was in town, the crown prince met with a slew of senior U.S. officials and congressional leaders, including Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain, as well as several other Washington VIPs.

On Friday afternoon, the State Department announced it was moving forward on a host of sales to the Bahraini Defense Forces, the Bahraini National Guard, and the Bahraini Coast Guard. The State Department said the decision to move forward with the sales was made solely in the interest of U.S. national security, but outside experts see the move as meant to strengthen the crown prince in his struggle inside the ruling family.

"We've made this decision, I want to emphasize, on national security grounds," a senior administration official told reporters on a Friday conference call. "We've made this decision mindful of the fact that there remain a number of serious, unresolved human rights issues in Bahrain, which we expect the government of Bahrain to address."

The official noted that the United States is maintaining its hold on the sale of several items the Bahrainis want, including Humvees, TOW missiles, tear gas, stun grenades, small arms and ammunition.

"The items that we are moving forward with are those that are not typically used for crowd control and that we would not anticipate would be used against protesters in any scenario," the official said.

The official declined to specify items on the list, but multiple sources familiar with the details told The Cable they include six more harbor patrol boats, communications equipment for Bahrain's air defense system, ground-based radars, AMRAAM air-to-air missile systems, Seahawk helicopters, Avenger air-defense systems, parts for F-16 fighter engines, refurbishment items for Cobra helicopters, and night-vision equipment.

The United States also agreed to work on legislation to allow the transfer of a U.S. frigate, will allow the Bahrainis to look at (but not yet purchase) armored personnel carriers, and will ask Congress for $10 million in foreign military financing for Bahrain in fiscal 2013.

Opponents of arms sales to Bahrain were quick to criticize the package, arguing that the administration is sending the wrong message to the regime at a time when the violence between government forces and protesters is actually increasing, as are allegations of prisoner abuse by Bahraini security forces.

"This is exactly the wrong time to be selling arms to the government of Bahrain. Things are getting worse, not better," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) said in a statement to The Cable. "The country is becoming even more polarized and both sides are becoming more entrenched. Reform is the ultimate goal and we should be using every tool and every bit of leverage we have to achieve that goal. The State department's decision is essentially giving away the store without the government of Bahrain bringing anything to the table."

On the conference call, administration officials could not name one concession or deliverable the crown prince gave or promised in exchange for the goodies he is bringing home with him.

But outside analysts believe the administration's strategy is more nuanced, and that the real goal of the arms sales is to bolster the crown prince's standing inside the ruling family in his pitched battle with hard-liners over the way ahead.

"The administration didn't want the crown prince to go home empty-handed because they wanted to empower him," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, who was arrested in Bahrain while documenting protests there last month. "They placed a lot of hope in him, but he can't deliver unless the king lets him and right now the hard-liners in the ruling family seem to have the upper hand."

The crown prince has been stripped of many of his official duties recently, but is still seen as the ruling family member who is most amenable to working constructively with the opposition and with the United States. It's unclear whether sending him home with arms sales will have any effect on internal Bahraini ruling family politics, however.

"That's the gamble the administration is taking, that it helps him show he can deliver something," Malinowski said. "But there's no guarantee the government will do what we all hope it does. They might just as easily conclude ‘We don't have to empower the crown prince at home; we just have to send him to America.'"

While the crown prince has been in Washington, hard-liners like the prime minister and the minister of the royal court have wielded their control over state media to bash the United States and accuse the U.S. government of fomenting the unrest in Bahrain.

"[The] trend in Bahrain is the redoubling of the anti-American media onslaught witnessed in most aggressive form last summer. This is usually a very clear sign that the State Department is pressuring for a deal to be done, and that some in the royal family are fighting back via their allies in society," wrote Justin Gengler, an academic and blogger focused on Bahrain.

He detailed a list of conspiratorial, anti-American allegations in the Bahraini state-controlled media over the last two weeks and noticed that the state media is focusing again on the case of Ludo Hood, the former political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain who was sent home "after being the focus of threats by pro-government citizens."

A high-level delegation from the opposition al-Wefaq party was in Washington this week as well, but they did leave empty handed.

"Many in the administration want to empower the crown prince as the reformer in the royal family against the hard-liners, and didn't want to send him home empty handed after his visit," said Cole Bockenfeld, director of advocacy at the Project on Middle East Democracy. "But no matter how you look at it here in Washington, on the street in Bahrain this will be perceived as the U.S. supporting a regime that is still doing horrible things."

KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images