Realpolitik alive and well under the Obama administration

There is no doubt that Bahrain is a less likely place for the popular unrest sweeping the Middle East to settle, over and above more traditionally volatile states in the region.

There is no doubt that Bahrain is a less likely place for the popular unrest sweeping the Middle East to settle, over and above more traditionally volatile states in the region. It has a higher average age than other Arab states, more than half of the 1.2 million population are non-citizens and it is generally perceived as less corrupt than even some European countries, including Italy, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Bahrain also appears close to the bottom of the Economist’s Index of Unrest.

Nevertheless, five protesters were killed and hundreds injured yesterday as the police, backed up by the military, attempted to reassert control over the tiny island by force. The fact that these protests have once again caught western nations off guard can be seen in stumbling responses to the violence. In the case of the United States their response seems to be at odds with their approach to other protests.

According to former Foreign Office Minister Denis MacShane, in the third quarter of 2010 the UK agreed export licences to Bahrain for:

“CS hand grenades, demolition charges, demolition devices, exploding simulation devices, fire simulation equipment for small arms ammunition, illuminators, military devices for initiating explosives, signal flares, signal hand grenades, smoke ammunition, smoke canisters, smoke generators, smoke hand grenades, stun grenades, tear gas/irritant ammunition, tear gas/riot control agents, thunderflashes, training anti-aircraft ammunition, training hand grenades.”

Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt has told the BBC that there is “no evidence” that links UK supply of weaponry and tear gas to the repression of protests over the last few days, but has announced there will be a review of the licenses.

This seems particularly weak. The UK should want to err on the side of caution where we know that a government we are selling weapons to is using deadly force against its own people.

As is customary in this region, the reaction of the United States is of particular interest. The US stations its 5th Fleet in Bahrain and has 4,200 personnel posted on the main island. In December last year, Hillary Clinton described Bahrain as a “model partner” and is keen not to upset delicate local oil markets. In a statement yesterday the Secretary of State said she “opposed violence and supports reform”, calling on the government to exercise “restraint”.

To geo-political realists, this approach of balancing the rhetoric within the strategic framework of the region may seem perfectly sensible. Just as the US did not want to be seen to be turning on an ally in Hosni Mubarak, or disrupting the balance of power in the Levant, the Obama administration is looking to play it safe In the gulf – not openly supporting the protests or solidly backing dictatorship.

The reasonableness of this approach quickly evaporates upon consideration of Clinton’s unrelenting response to the potential unrest in Iran. She said she “supports the aspirations” of the protesters, condemning the state for “resorting to violence”, and saying America would “call to account” the Iranian government.

Clinton went on to insist she “supports universal human rights of Iranian people” and that they “deserve same rights as Egypt”. However, the most amazing statement was when the Secretary of state described the protests in Tehran as:

“…a testament to the courage of the Iranian people and an indictment of the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime.”

The United States is absolutely right to take this position on Iran – who lauded the fall of Mubarak but deny the same rights to their own people; however, Clinton should not be surprised if such unreserved comments raise eyebrows. America cannot act as a serious and reliable enforcer of human rights and democracy if it will take a more strident approach to its enemies than to its friends.

Unsurprisingly, realpolitik is very much alive in the Obama administration, but it will inevitably lead to equal retorts of hypocrisy as those levelled at Iran. It cannot be right that the US supports the courage of protesters in some states, but only demands that they are not to be shot in others.

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