Bullets vs. doughnuts: Bahrain, Yemen and the US response

Crossposted on Groundswell.

The media and the public are understandably paying a lot of attention to the brutal repression of the rebellion in Libya and the US and allied response. However, while debate rages about the proper response to Qaddafi’s violent push against the rebels, the suffering civilians of Bahrain and Yemen, whose governments have a much cozier relationship with the US, have been largely ignored.

One of the eternal frustrations of those of us who advocate for a foreign policy based on respect for human rights and peaceful resolution of conflict is how selectively the US applies its standards and uses its considerable clout in the global community. The US has had a middling response so far to the crackdowns in Bahrain and Yemen, opposing violence “on both sides” (particularly maddening given the lopsidedness of the violence here) but avoiding harsh rhetoric, while not utilizing the leverage it has with these governments to push for a peaceful solution. Bahrain and Yemen have been buried in the mainstream news, removing one of the pressure points on the administration to take a stronger stand and fuel for the world to be moved by outrage to call for action. As Think Progress reports, Libya was mentioned 9,524 times by major cable news networks last week, while Bahrain and Yemen only going 1,587 and 599 mentions respectively.

Since protests started on February 14th in Bahrain, things have escalated considerably, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE sending in troops to protect the ruling family from protesters. Disturbing reports of violence used against protesters have streamed in since then. Human Rights Watch reports that masked men have been arresting doctors and human rights workers in nighttime raids, and injured people have been denied medical care. The AP had a harrowing report yesterday of people being pulled from hospital beds by men in military uniforms:

It was just after midnight when armed men in military uniforms came to the hospital bed of Ali Mansour Abdel-Karim Nasser, who was injured by pellets fired during a clash with riot police. He said what came next was worse: he was bound, beaten and mocked in the hallway of Bahrain’s main state-run hospital.

“I did not talk. I did not argue with them. I just cried,” he told The Associated Press in his mostly Shiite village, Al Kharjiya, about 20 miles (15 kilometers) from the capital Manama.

The Salmaniya medical complex — now under military rule — appears to be one of the last main targets of Bahrain’s Sunni rulers trying to crush a pro-democracy uprising by the country’s Shiite majority. The hospital treated hundreds of injured demonstrators and its morgue held some of the dead since the revolt began last month in the strategically important Gulf country, the home of U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.

The United States has a cozy relationship with the government of Bahrain, largely because the Bahrain and its allies have raised the scary specter of Iran and its growing power that might result if democracy breaks out in Bahrain. The country receives military aid and provides logistical support for Iraq and Afghanistan and houses the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Nick Turse reports that bullets that are killing protesters may have been paid for with US tax dollars:

A TomDispatch analysis of Defense Department documents indicates that, since the 1990s, the United States has transferred large quantities of military materiel, ranging from trucks and aircraft to machine-gun parts and millions of rounds of live ammunition, to Bahrain’s security forces.

According to data from the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the branch of the government that coordinates sales and transfers of military equipment to allies, the US has sent Bahrain dozens of “excess” American tanks, armored personnel carriers, and helicopter gunships. The US has also given the Bahrain Defense Force thousands of .38 caliber pistols and millions of rounds of ammunition, from large-caliber cannon shells to bullets for handguns. To take one example, the US supplied Bahrain with enough .50 caliber rounds—used in sniper rifles and machine guns—to kill every Bahraini in the kingdom four times over. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency did not respond to repeated requests for information and clarification.

In addition to all these gifts of weaponry, ammunition, and fighting vehicles, the Pentagon in coordination with the State Department oversaw Bahrain’s purchase of more than $386 million in defense items and services from 2007 to 2009, the last three years on record. These deals included the purchase of a wide range of items from vehicles to weapons systems. Just this past summer, to cite one example, the Pentagon announced a multimillion-dollar contract with Sikorsky Aircraft to customize nine Black Hawk helicopters for Bahrain’s Defense Force.

While the administration has condemned violence against peaceful protesters, Turse reports that Washington has since “softened its tone” after lobbying by the Pentagon, Bahrain’s State Department emissaries and Middle East allies. When protesters showed up at the US embassy in Manama with signs bearing slogans such as “stop supporting dictators,” a US Embassy official brought them a box of doughnuts.

Meanwhile in Yemen, at least 52 peaceful protesters were killed by snipers in the capital of Sanaa on Friday, March 18th. Human Rights Watch reports that at least one child was among the dead, and more than 350 were wounded. Ali Abdullah Saleh ha reportedly agreed to step down by January of 2012, but it’s unclear whether this will appease the protesters.

The US-Yemen relationship gained some attention during the Wikileaks release of State Department cables as it was revealed that ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to let Americans bomb inside his country and to lie about it to his people. This cooperation on counterterrorism is a major factor in how the US responds to the violence:

The Yemeni government has also worked extensively with the US to reduce the number of foreign-born Muslims visiting Sana’a to learn Arabic. The US has long believed that “learning Arabic in Sana’a” was generally a front for terrorist training and radicalization. All the while, US “security assistance” to Yemen has shot up, from an already-impressive $67 million in 2009 to requests for first $150 million and then over a billion dollars in 2010. (NOTE: The $1 billion was just a request, a number under discussion according to the cables.)

Bottom line: if Saleh goes, US cooperation with Yemen on counterterrorism will be totally up in the air.

President Obama and Secretary Clinton condemned Friday’s violence, saying that Saleh should allow peaceful protests, but there has been no explicit threat to suspend military aid.

Many were frustrated that the Obama administration did not have a stronger response to violence in Egypt, another ally, until it became clear that Mubarak could not stay in power. The US should certainly use caution in inserting itself into the inspiring uprisings that have spread throughout the Arab world. It’s important for these movements to stay in the hands of the people. However, the US has a responsibility to use the leverage it has to prevent brutality against peaceful protesters, allowing them to continue their struggle for human rights.

Some people view the Libya intervention as a way to “send a message” to dictators that violence doesn’t pay. Others argue that it can help rehabilitate the US reputation in the Arab world by showing that we are on the side of the people. But how can these messages be credible when there has been no public threat to cut off military aid to countries that are killing their own people and repressing dissent? The Obama administration must not continue the policy of giving its friends a pass on human rights.

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