U.S. Hypocrisy on Bahrain

The tiny Gulf nation and U.S. ally has been brutalizing peaceful protesters, so why are we doing so little?

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Family members and supporters mourn Jawad Ahmed, killed by riot police during an anti-government protest / Reuters

Now in its third year in office, the Obama Administration has never championed the cause of human rights. Its slow reaction in June 2009 to the stealing of the election in Iran and the birth of the "Green Movement" there, and its delay in backing the rebellions in Egypt, Libya, and Syria, are evidence of this problem. But two recent news items show just how bad the situation has become.

In Bahrain, American silence and inaction in the face of human rights abuses has produced resentment toward the United States. Here is what The New York Times reported last week:

As the status quo endures -- some believe that the king may introduce reforms this month, while others remain skeptical -- anger among many Shiites toward American policy has deepened. Though some appreciated President Obama's criticism of the crackdown in May, many lament what they see as a double standard. In contrast to the treatment of Syria and Libya, they point out, no administration official is calling for sanctions against Bahrain, a country where the United States has its largest regional naval base, for the Fifth Fleet. "Democracy isn't only for those countries the United States has a problem with," said Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

Last week as well, the Obama Administration made an astonishing kow-tow to China and intervened in free elections in Taiwan. The Financial Times of London reported this:

The Obama administration has warned that a victory by Tsai Ing-wen, the Taiwanese opposition leader, in the island's January presidential election could raise tensions with China. A senior US official said Ms Tsai, the Democratic Progressive party leader who is visiting Washington, had sparked concerns about stability in the Taiwan Strait, which is "critically important" to the US.  "She left us with distinct doubts about whether she is both willing and able to continue the stability in cross-Strait relations the region has enjoyed in recent years," the official told the Financial Times after Ms Tsai met with administration officials.

What a picture! We intervene in Taiwan where there are free elections, and remain far too quiet on Bahrain where there are manifold abuses. When Bahraini human rights activists see a double standard, they are close to the truth: the Obama Administration appears to have no coherent human rights policy at all. If human rights NGOs were not mostly on the Left they would be protesting far more vociferously against this abandonment of principle.

The resentment felt in Bahrain can be dangerous to U.S. interests; indeed in the future it can endanger the presence of the Fifth Fleet there. I recall well the Nixon Administration's support for the Greek coup in 1967, an act for which the people of Greece have still not forgiven us. One lesson of the Arab Spring must surely be that our relations with rulers cannot be allowed to displace our concern for the fate of the peoples they rule--who will remember whether we were with them or against them as they sought to end oppression and direct their own destinies.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org

Presented by

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Formerly deputy national security adviser on Middle East affairs in the George W. Bush administration, Abrams was also an assistant secretary of state for UN affairs, human rights, and Latin America in the Reagan administration. Abrams blogs at Pressure Points.

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