How Washington’s Determination to Dominate Iran Corrodes U.S. Standing in the Middle East: Lessons from Bahrain

How Washington’s Determination to Dominate Iran Corrodes U.S. Standing in the Middle East: Lessons from Bahrain

SOURCE: The Race For Iran

by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

As the United States pushes for regime change in Syria and American allies flock to suspend Syria from the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, it is illuminating to examine the strategic bankruptcy of U.S. policy toward Bahrain.  For the deep flaws in Washington’s approach to Bahrain grow out of the same considerations that warp its policy toward Syria.  And at the root of all these dangerously deficient policies is a dogged determination to contain and undermine the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Against this backdrop, Hillary appeared on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story Americas last week to discuss the political situation in Bahrain and Washington’s ongoing support for the Khalifa monarchy there; click here to view the segment or on the video above.  The program opens with an interview with Maryam al-Khawaja, a Bahraini human rights activist.  The panel discussion in which Hillary appears begins at 7:05 in the video.

Bahrain is arguably the most flagrant manifestation of American hypocrisy regarding the Arab spring.  As the Islamic Republic’s foreign minister, Dr. Ali Akbar Salehi, noted in his Washington Post op ed on Syria last week, see here, “there have been conflicting responses to the civic movements sweeping the Arab world.  A glaring example of these contradictions lies in Bahrain and the way some states have responded to the crackdown on the uprising there.”  In his set up for the Inside Story episode, Al Jazeera’s moderator, Shihab Rattansi, notes that “for almost every single Arab country that has seen uprisings over the past two years, the U.S. has called for regime change—except for the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, one of its closest allies in the region.”  Bahrain is, of course, the home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet.  Three months ago, the United States resumed selling weapons to the Bahraini government, notwithstanding its extensive, ongoing, and well-documented violations of human rights and its failure to make any discernible progress toward meaningful political reform, much less a negotiated political settlement between the government and the opposition.

As Hillary points out, Washington cannot recalibrate its policy toward Bahrain without a fundamental reevaluation of its larger strategy in the Middle East.  As a result of that strategy, she says, the United States is

“stuck with an ally like Bahrain, we’re stuck with some of the allies that we have in the Middle East.  That’s because our strategic interest, as U.S. officials have framed it now for decades, is essentially oil and Israel.  And oil is personified in the state of Saudi Arabia.  So any country that is willing to align itself, to collude with Israel and Saudi Arabia, to give up their own sovereignty, to do whatever they do to their own citizens in order to work with Israel and Saudi Arabia in U.S. interests—those are our allies…Sometimes they’re better, sometimes they’re worse, sometimes they behave better, sometimes they don’t.  But we’re stuck with them.”

Hillary notes that, with the “advent of the information revolution” in the Middle East, “it’s harder to be stuck with bad allies.  It’s harder to justify having an alliance with a country, with a government that abuses its own citizens, and carries out policies that are against its own interests…You can’t stand there, like when I worked in the Bush administration with President Bush, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq with the King of Bahrain, smiling and saying ‘Everything is great.’  You can’t do that anymore.  Even though it was wrong probably for the King of Bahrain to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq, we could get away with it then; we can’t get away with it now.”

Nevertheless, Hillary underscores that the United States, as its Middle East strategy is currently structured, “cannot support the opposition in Bahrain, because if the opposition had any real say in the government, they would never allow Bahrain to cede its territory to the United States for the Fifth Fleet, to be used as a platform to attack a much stronger neighbor [Iran].  That makes no sense strategically.”

Containing (if not eventually eliminating) the Islamic Republic became the overarching aim of America’s Middle East strategy—for the Obama administration as well as for its predecessors—because, as Hillary explains, “Iran is the defiance.  Iran stands up to U.S. plans for dominance in the region.”  Any administration in Washington feels compelled “to do whatever it can, in whatever country it is in the Middle East, to push back against that—no matter how destabilizing it is.”

This kind of strategic irrationality is not unprecedented in American foreign policy:  “We did the same thing in Asia long ago, with Vietnam and Korea.  We wanted to contain China’s stand against U.S. domination in Asia, and we were willing to fight to the last American and the last Chinese person in Vietnam and in Korea.  Our pursuit of dominance can be ferocious.  It has been ferocious in the Middle East; it was ferocious in Asia.  And countries like China and Iran literally are standing up to that, and that’s the problem that American policymakers have been bedeviled with since the end of World War II.”

Hillary allows that arms sales and political support for repressive regimes “works temporarily and it can work incrementally over time to keep a pro-American government that is working against the interests of its people, both in terms of their human rights and in terms of their geopolitics—control over their own territory.”  Certainly, this approach “works to co-opt members of the royal family in Bahrain, as it works to coopt members of royal families in other governments throughout the Middle East.”

But it cannot reconcile the demands of Bahrain’s opposition with the Khalifa monarchy’s continued hold on power.  And that, as Hillary drives home, is why the problem “has to be militarized,” for “if the United States actually had to compete with its narrative of what the U.S. actually stands for in the Middle East, in terms of good policy, with these populations, it would lose in a second.   That’s why it has to militarize each one of these conflicts—it has to give weapons to the military and to the government in Bahrain, because that’s the only card the United States really has.  It can’t compete in the world of ideas; it can’t compete with its narratives.”

And that militarization has follow-on consequences, which Hillary spells out:  “Bahrain—like Israel—if it didn’t have the military might of the United States behind it, goading it to be provocative against its neighbors, it would actually have to [as we say] ‘box in its own weight class.’  It would have to deal with the reality of a large Iran, a large Iraq, a large Saudi Arabia, and make accommodations and get by.  But because it has the United States—like Israel—it can do things that are much more provocative to its neighbors.”  This is “perilous” to Bahrain’s Shi’a majority because, to pursue policies “pitting Bahrain against Iran,” the Khalifa monarchy must inevitably suppress “its own domestic population.”

In the end, to recalibrate its approach to democracy and human rights in a place Bahrain, the United States “would have to give up its pursuit of dominance” in the Middle East.  It “would have to come to terms with the key players in the region that are resisting its pursuit of dominance—specifically the Islamic Republic of Iran.  And if it were to do so, you wouldn’t need $60 billion arms sales to the Saudis and to the Gulf…It would make no sense if the Islamic Republic of Iran were a country you were working with and arming other countries to the teeth to fight against.”

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