Swift Boat to Bahrain
March 19, 2012 · By Paul Mutter
Despite a pause on most security cooperation with Bahrain, the United States is still supplying it with boats.
If it looks like an arms deal, walks like an arms deal and quacks like an arms deals, is it an arms deal? The State Department says no:
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.
…"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."
The real story out of Bahrain these days, though, is not the gift of some old PT boats, but with the vagaries of the dialogue going on between the pro-government camp and the predominantly Shia opposition groups, increasingly splitting between the leading pro-dialogue al-Wifaq group and younger demonstrators opposed to al-Wifaq's stance. According to Justin Gengler, the pro-government camp is starting to list some "reformist" demands of its own:
Once again, then, we hear two separate arguments from members of Bahrain's Sunni political movements: (1) the state should not negotiate with terrorists; and (2) the state needs to take better care of those who are loyal to it, specifically by clamping down on corruption and other wastes of state resources. As I've written previously, whereas the first argument is sure to further complicate the search for a solution to Bahrain's present political impasse, the second is much more worrisome to the country's rulers. It implies that Sunnis are beginning to connect the state's percieved leniency with the opposition with its larger (perceived) neglect of the pro-government faction generally.
In other words, they're asking the Al Khalifas where are their welfare checks?
It is one thing, in other words, for Sunnis to disagree with the government's approach in dealing with the opposition; it is another if they begin to suspect that this approach is not simply short-sighted but actually belies a coherent government strategy of checking Sunni ambitions through its dealings with the opposition. Put more bluntly, some Sunnis are beginning to feel duped.
Notably, one increasingly-prominent feature of this Sunni movement toward greater political participation and influence is the notion that behind the Bahraini government's manipulation of citizens is a second, even more sinister puppet-master: the United States.
Given the prominence of the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and the tepid response of the State Department to the Bahraini protests, this suspicion is already well-founded among the demonstrators, but apparently, it is taking a very nasty turn among Sunni critics of the government thanks to the arrival of some very questionable, anti-American firebrands from Kuwait in their forums.
So there is, according to anonymous Congressional staff, another rationale for this PT boat deal: "'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."
And considering that this aide then snarked that the State Department was essentially saying "Have a nice day, thank you for your interest in Bahrain. It's just boats so it's no big deal," I think it's likely that said aide hails from an office in the Congressional bloc led by Wyden and McGovern that is holding up a much larger US$53 million arms deal. As for the one step forward, one step backward situation, the aide could be referring to the announcement that the controversial U.S. and UK ex-police chiefs the royal family has brought in are setting up an accountability office for Bahrain police force as questionable trials and protestor-police clashes continue.
P.S. Gulf watchers Sultan al-Qassemi and Justin Gengler have both reported on rumors about the KSA and Bahrain forming some sort of political union (the United Arab Autocracy?). Outlandish, yes, but it's not like there wouldn't be a precedent: after a popular uprising in Poland in 1848, the "Year of Revolutions," was put down by the Prussian Army, Berlin formally annexed the region where the revolt took place. Perhaps the deployment of the Peninsula Shield Force has given Riyadh similar ideas. As professor Toby Jones told the AP, "Bahrain can be looked at as something of a Saudi colony now in the sense that policies are merged." Might as well make it official.