The U.S. was a big player in this year’s Arab Spring but for far longer, U.S. dollars and weapons have supported the repression, not the flowering, of democracy. Nicholas Kristoff, in an op-ed in New York Times yesterday, looked at the effects of this repression, not in the United States, though that may come soon enough, but in foreign countries. Specifically, Bahrain, a country most Americans haven’t spent two-seconds thinking about, if they even know it exists, if they can even point it out on a map. But ignorance is not bliss for those on the sharp end of American dollars.
Kristoff reminds us that in Bahrain the government’s repression of its citizens is systematic. And according to the Washington Times, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry has reported that torture and excessive force were employed in that country’s “Arab Spring” (February and March). And that wasn’t a congressional commission but one called into being by the king himself, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.
In a startling case of symmetry, as happens here wherever #Occupy shows its head, wherever pro-democracy demonstrations pop up, repression is sure to follow. Sure the stuff they shoot at our people is made in the good old U.S. of A. So is the stuff they shoot at people in Bahrain. As Kristoff writes, “the tear gas shells that they sweep off the streets each morning are made by a Pennsylvania company, NonLethal Technologies.”
For once, why couldn’t something be made in China? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate? Or perhaps by some company deeply invested in by Vladimir Putin? But no, right there in Pennsylvania, Joe Biden’s home state and operating under license by the United States government currently run by Joe and his boss, President Barack Obama.
We like to think of Barack Obama as a good guy. He has proven he is not another George W. Bush many times over. We like to think we’re the good guys – Americans in general. We’re brought up to think that way. America in the White Hat and dictators in Black. But the sad truth is that America has never cared much if its allies were brutal dictators. That was secondary to whether or not that ally provided stability in the region as a staunch American ally in the Cold War. The Cold War is long over and as of yet we don’t have a new one with China, despite Obama’s deployment of Marines to Australia, but we still don’t care much about what our allies do to their own citizens.
Look at all those regimes toppled by this year’s Arab Spring. We were cozy with them all. We are cozy with them all. President Mubarak in Egypt got rich on our dime. And we’d rather he buy his guns from us than from somebody else.
Kristoff asks us to consider Zainab al-Khawaja, a twenty-eight year-old woman “whose husband and father are both in prison and have been tortured for pro-democracy activities, according to human rights reports.” We may not be cutting out tongues, as police threatened to do to her, but likely she’d have been arrested here by now as well. Kristoff reports her pre-arrest appeal to Americans:
“At least don’t sell them arms,” she pleaded. “When Obama sells arms to dictators repressing people seeking democracy, he ruins the reputation of America. It’s never in America’s interest to turn a whole people against it.”
You can’t argue with her words – can you? They are true. But dollars to donuts, like other American presidents before him, President Obama sells those arms to Bahrain. It’s the American way. As Eisenhower warned it would be. It’s how we roll. It’s become institutionalized, this dichotomy of high-sounding platitudes and Realpolitik.
There are a lot of factors involved of course, besides the long-arm of the infamous military industrial complex. Longstanding U.S. interest in the region, particularly now with our defeat in Iraq (it’s a victory only in the sense that we are finally getting our asses out of there with a modicum of dignity), our intended exit from a still not pacified Afghanistan, a restless Iran and an often irate Pakistan. How important is Bahrain, you ask? The Fifth Fleet is stationed there, an almost unimaginably expensive investment. Expensive to maintain but even more expensive to move, were our hosts to become frustrated with us and ask us to leave.
Pakistan is another often brutal and repressive regime into which we have pumped billions of dollars. And they have been of next to no help to us at all, letting Osama bin Laden live just down the road from their military academy. Bill Keller writes in the New York Times from another perspective, that pimping for the U.S. ain’t easy. In Keller’s words,
If you survey informed Americans, you will hear Pakistanis described as duplicitous, paranoid, self-pitying and generally infuriating. In turn, Pakistanis describe us as fickle, arrogant, shortsighted and chronically unreliable.
No doubt both perspectives are equally valid. I’d be less than happy with an ally that regularly killed my fellow citizens with its “precision” armaments. Let’s face it: you can’t escape collateral damage when you drop bombs and missiles, no matter how “smart” they are. Precision bombing might be more precise than the old claims of World War II bombing enthusiasts but that isn’t saying much for the collaterally dead and their families. Look at the deaths caused by NATO in Libya, deaths NATO doesn’t want to talk about any more than America likes to talk about such things.
No doubt despite all this arms sales to Pakistan will continue along with a co-dependent marriage of convenience. But as it happens, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, agrees with al-Khawaja with regards to weapons sales to Bahrain:
“Imagine if everyone in Congress had kept quiet and this arms sale had been completed,” he asked. “What kind of message would this have sent the world or the people aspiring for freedom and democracy?”
Imagine…you can bet the owners of Non-Lethal Technologies would have just as soon not seen Wyden or anyone else give it a moment’s thought. It’s profits, after all and profits, not human rights, drive business. No doubt the #Occupy movement has been good for business but Bahrain and other repressive regimes are also good for business. Always have been.
You know Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, wouldn’t have given it a moment’s thought. Hell, Rumsfeld would probably have owned in whole or in part the company selling the not-so-non-lethal non-lethal technologies involved (remember Halliburton?)
Will Obama listen to Wyden and other Democrats, not to mention Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Marc Rubio (R-FL) who want the sale to Bahrain to be based on human rights reforms in that strategically crucial kingdom? It’s not just tear gas. As the Washington Times reports, it is also “Humvees, wire-guided and bunker-busting missiles, missile launchers, and night-vision gear.”
Bahrain can claim that none of these goodies will be used internally but there is no good reason to believe that. Why should we insist Bahrain not use the stuff on their citizens now that our own military is that far away from rounding up our own citizens and throwing them into gulags without a trace via the National Defense Authorization Act? The Obama administration delayed the sale back in October pending the commission’s findings. The State Department has previously said that “whenever” we sell arms we hold our customers to “high human rights standards” but given how things are looking at home and our long history abroad, you gotta wonder how high a bar those standards set.
Blood and Money Image from Smiley & West