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The answer is easy. The Saudi ally gets the pass; the others get invaded. But “pass” is too mild a word, because after bombing Libya into submission, while preparing to do the same thing to Syria, the Obama administration has actually resumed arms sales to Bahrain. And the only real reason those arms sales were originally halted, was because of objections from Congress.
What’s the difference between Libya, Syria and Bahrain? Not all that much. All three had rulers widely hated by the people for being unrepresentative tyrants. All three responded to domestic protests with armed force. In Syria, there is a Sunni majority being ruled over by a Shiite splinter group minority, while in Bahrain, there is a Shiite majority being ruled over by a Sunni minority. Why pick one over the other? Because Saudi Arabia is the big brother of the Bahraini monarchy, and so a Sunni tyranny over a Shiite population is legitimized, while a Shiite tyranny over a Sunni population is delegitimized.
While the Obama administration is dancing around the edges of arming the Syrian rebels, it is also arming the Bahraini government. While the United States participates in the Friends of Syria group, whose goal is to overthrow the Syrian government and replace it with the Muslim Brotherhood, it has renewed security cooperation with Bahrain. While Syrian diplomats were being expelled from Washington, the Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa came to Washington and met with Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta—nearly every important foreign policy figure in the administration with the exception of Obama.
The optics of having Obama shake hands with a tyrant while handing out Medals of Freedom might have come off as a little tacky, even from an administration that jumps when the House of Saud tells it to, without asking how high. But while the Crown Prince may not have left with Obama’s fingerprints on his palm, he is leaving with Seahawk helicopters, AMRAAM missiles, F-16 parts, a frigate and an option on some armored personnel carriers, for the next time things get hot down in Manama.
What’s even more extraordinary is that the State Department’s press statement on the renewal of arms sales to Bahrain appeared to blame both protesters and Bahraini authorities for the violence, and even teetered on the brink of placing the weight of the blame on the protesters.
“We are concerned about excessive use of force and tear gas by police. At the same time, we are concerned by the almost daily use of violence by some protestors,” the statement reads. “We urge all sides to work together to end the violence and refrain from incitement of any kind, including attacks on peaceful protestors or on the Bahraini police.”
The statement could hardly have had more wriggle room or a softer condemnation of the regime, if it had actually been written by the Crown Prince or one of his flunkies. It is all the more startling to compare this to State Department bulletins on Libya and Syria, which lack any such moral ambiguity or strained refusal to take sides in the conflict between government and anti-government forces.
The deciding factor isn’t Bahrain’s reliability as a regional ally or base space. If that was the issue then Mubarak wouldn’t have been sold out to the Muslim Brotherhood and Yemen’s President Ali Saleh would have enjoyed the same backing as the Crown Prince of Bahrain. Not to mention lesser allies like Tunisia’s President Ben Ali, whom the Obama administration triumphantly jeered to the exit only to see him replaced by Islamist Al-Nahda terrorists. It’s not about how good an ally of America a given country is, but how good an ally of Saudi Arabia it is.
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