Monday, May 14, 2012

Collective Security in the Gulf

Today, Reuters is running a story that Bahrain and Saudi Arabia will soon announce a union, connecting the two countries on all matters of security and economics, with the possibility of a third state joining the union as well. Bahrain's information minister, Samira Rajab, explained the situation in an interview, stating, "Sovereignty will remain with each of the countries and they would remain as U.N. members but they would unite in decisions regarding foreign relations, security, military and the economy."

This announcement, coming directly after a Washington visit by Bahraini crown prince Samad bin-Hamad al-Khalifa, who was greeted by Senators bearing weapons catalogs, solidifies the current American position of doubling down on its 40 year alliance with the Gulf Arab Monarchs (70 years in the case of Saudi Arabia). The Bahrain-Saudi union is the first step in creating a new Collective Security bloc among the six GCC states, what U.S. officials have referred to as a "NATO-lite". As a New York Times article from last November described it, "the administration and the military are trying to foster a new “security architecture” for the Persian Gulf that would integrate air and naval patrols and missile defense."

Since 2004, in fact, the militaries of the region have been learning under the behemoth of Collective Security, NATO. Under NATO's "Istanbul Initiative" program, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE have become "partners" with the U.S. led alliance, allowing them to participate in NATO exercises and training programs. This came at the same time as the Pentagon's massive militarization of the Persian Gulf that followed their 2003 Iraq invasion. The U.S. military now controls major airbases in Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE, and bases the Navy's ever expanding Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. Additionally, the Qatar airbase--al Udied--also house Central Command's forward positioning headquarters.  With the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq (which occurred based on the demands of the Iraqi government, and was opposed by Washington), this basing network is the major political spoil remaining from the 2003 war.  (For a much longer version of this history, dating back to the 1970's, see my paper "The Gulf Wars," or my post "All GCC states close their embassies in Syria")
The downside to this ever strengthening alliance is that the State Department must play stupid when it comes to "democracy" and "freedom" in the region. Nowhere is this more clear than in Bahrain, where the Sunni kings have spent the last year repressing, arresting, and torturing Shia protesters. Documentation of these actions was collected by Bahrain's Independent Commision of Inquiry, who found that methods of the Bahraini rulers includes extremely tight handcuffing, forced standing, severe beatings, electric shocks, burning with cigarettes, beating of the soles of the feet, verbal abuse, sleep deprivation, threats of rape, sexual abuse including the insertion of items into the anus and grabbing of genitals, hanging, exposure to extreme temperatures, forced nudity and humiliation through acts such as being forced to lick boots of guards, abuse with dogs, mock executions, and being forced to eat feces.
At one point last year, the al-Khalifas security services couldn't even handle their own protesters, and had to call in shock troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. 

Does Hillary Clinton know this?  Or course, and yet when she recently spoke of her meetings with the Bahraini crown-prince, the rhetoric was all about a "valued ally" with an "internal problem," and the policy was to sell a new batch of weaponry to the tiny island kingdom. According to Josh Rogin, a reporter for Foreign Policy magazine, al-Khalifa returned to the Gulf with agreements to buy "six more harbor patrol boats, communications equipment for Bahrain's air defense system, ground-based radars, AMRAAM air-to-air missile systems, Seahawk helicopters, Avenger air-defense systems, parts for F-16 fighter engines, refurbishment items for Cobra helicopters, and night-vision equipment." Additionally, U.S. officials agreed, "to work on legislation to allow the transfer of a U.S. frigate, will allow the Bahrainis to look at (but not yet purchase) armored personnel carriers, and will ask Congress for $10 million in foreign military financing for Bahrain in fiscal 2013."   

This type of the unabashed support makes Washington and its recent fad of "humanitarian intervention" look like major hypocrites, selectively deciding to overthrow a Libyan government fighting its own protesters, while showering weapons on a Bahraini government doing the same thing.  In the words of Georgetown Professor Marc Lynch, these type of actions are "opening a glaring wound in American credibility" in the region.  Will the Security States new "Atrocity Prevention Board" take action against atrocities being committed by the al-Khalifas?  Most definitely not, as the Bahraini rulers control the Pentagon's access to its ports, as they have since the British Empire based a Navy squadron in Manama there in the 1930's, and the British then leased access to the U.S. after WWII.  In 1971, when Bahrain was granted its independence from London, it immediately agreed to terms with the U.S. to keep a Naval base there.  Since that time, the U.S. Fifth Fleet has grown into a robust force with 20+ ships, 15,000 people afloat, and another 1,000 ashore, patrolling the Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, and parts of the Indian Ocean.  

The Bahraini-American relationship is based on access to this base,  and in the larger sense preserving the Bahraini ruling family role as willing vassals of U.S. policy in the Gulf, which is focused almost exclusively on security and energy matters.  The recent announcement of the Bahraini-Saudi union plays right into the game, as it unites the political commanding-heights of the two U.S. allied states into a bureaucratic structure the better for projecting power.  It also further sharpens the Shia-Sunni divide, a political framework that seems to always be on the mind of the Gulf rulers.  In this framework, a Shia crescent, led by Tehran and incorporating Iraq, Syria, and Lebanese Hezbollah, is growing atop their desert Sunni kingdoms.  By tying together their foreign policy under a collective security framework, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are only exacerbating this divide, leading to an arms and security race on both sides.  And it must never be forgotten that the area being militarized is a global energy chokepoint, through which 20% of the worlds oil passes daily.   

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