How the United States looked the other way while Bahrain crushed the Arab Spring’s most ill-fated uprising.
I made my way to the village and caught the now familiar sight of protesters gathered in a small group, shouting slogans against Bahrain’s royal family. Within minutes riot police descended, and I fled with the demonstrators into the home of the victim’s relatives. We stayed there, trapped, for hours as the police fired tear gas at such close range that it ripped holes into the walls. The following day, the pattern repeated itself. The man’s funeral turned into a flash protest; the riot police responded violently; the whole thing was caught on video.
Since then the government has vowed to implement the investigating commission’s recommendations, like reinstating sacked workers and rebuilding some Shiite mosques. But to this day, not a single official has been held accountable for the violence during the crackdown—or for the violence that continues today. The chief of Bahrain’s national security council, also a member of the royal family, was replaced. But he was offered a new position, as special adviser to the king.
For its part, the U.S. Congress has put on hold a $53 million package of arms sales to Bahrain, insisting that its rulers implement real reforms. That arms package includes Humvees and antitank missiles. But another previously authorized arms package—which U.S. officials say will only maintain Bahrain’s current defense systems and will not be used against protesters—will proceed. As tensions between the U.S. and Iran heat up over that country’s nuclear program and threats to close a waterway that controls the Persian Gulf, U.S. officials say Bahrain is a good friend in a tough neighborhood—a friend the U.S. simply can not afford to lose.
“If there is a place globally where there is not just distance but a huge gap between American interests and American values, it’s in the Persian Gulf. And its epicenter is in Bahrain,” says Toby Jones of Rutgers University. By deciding it wants to see the Bahraini regime survive and endure, Jones says, “the United States has chosen sides.”
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