In contrast to my last ambitious mega-post on the “partisan divide,” this short article is meant to simply outline the situation in Bahrain, put it in the context of the Arab Spring, and explain what it indicates for US foreign policy.
Decades ago, Noam Chomsky made the distinction between “worthy” and “unworthy victims” to describe the way the American media ignores certain crises or conflicts – in his time, he was referring to the US-supported Indonesian genocide in East Timor. Today, whereas the media has reported (and misreported) extensively about Venezuela, it has largely ignored the crisis in Bahrain, a small island country off the east coast of Saudi Arabia.
The Situation in Bahrain
Much like the disaster of Egypt’s revolution, Bahrain has seen its revolution violently quashed by its political elites. Bahrain is #1 in political prisoners per capita, with many of the inmates being tortured. From the beginning of the uprising in 2011, 96 people have died at the hands of the dictatorship. The government had even prosecuted doctors for treating injured protesters. Add to that the destruction of religious buildings and the censorship of the Internet, and life in Bahrain can’t get worse, especially for dissenters.
The Arab Spring, Elsewhere and in Bahrain
While the Arab Spring’s energy couldn’t bring down repressive governments in Egypt or Bahrain, it did bring about a real revolution where it had begun, in Tunisia. The Tunisian dictator, Ben Ali, was deposed, and his authoritarian regime was replaced by a constitutional government that recognized women’s, labor, and environmental rights. What’s caused the difference? In Tunisia, the US had long supported the dictatorship despite knowing its record of abuses, but after the protests, the US thought propping up the Ben Ali regime wouldn’t be feasible (according to a former Bahraini diplomat). In Bahrain, the State Department understands the regime’s awful record, but behind the empty calls for political reform, US military aid and arms sales continue.
Towards a More Just Foreign Policy
Herein lies the difficulty of democratization in a region long subject to American hegemony. Only when supporting a dictatorship becomes untenable, does the US government back down from propping up its clients. The task for Bahrainis is to pressure the US into dropping its support for the regime; the duty of Americans that genuinely care about democracy is to pressure the US government to change the shameful calculus behind its foreign policy.
Writing in solidarity with those committed to justice in Bahrain, it’s unfortunate (but truthful) to say that the prospects for revolution in Bahrain’s politics might depend on the prospects for revolution in American foreign policy.