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Radical Allies and Moderate Subversives: U.S. Foreign Policy Threatens America's Interests in the Gulf

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Just weeks ago, Nabeel Rajab, the "Gandhi of Bahrain," spent his birthday in a prison cell. Originally "jailed for a tweet," Rajab, the renowned president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, now faces up to three years in prison for allegedly inciting violence among protesters against the Bahraini monarchy. Bahrain has been engulfed in turmoil since early 2011 when the US-backed Al-Khalifa regime launched a violent crackdown against the nation's popular non-violent reform movement. The regime has since selectively targeted the island's ethnic-majority, its Shia population, and has gained a terrifying reputation for using brutal torture tactics on those citizens detained. Recently, Bahrain's appeal courts upheld the sentence of 20 other opposition activists, ignoring domestic and international outcry.

In the Spring of 2011, I met Rajab and his family in their home in Bahrain. His then nine-year-old daughter, Malak, joined us for the interview. Just hours before our arrival, masked state security forces raided the Rajab's family compound in the middle of the night, bombarding the grounds with teargas and forcing their way into the Rajab's home with heavy weaponry. Needless to say, little Malak was far too traumatized to attend school that day.

Now Malak joins her brother, 15-year-old Adam, and her mother, Sumaya, to demand justice for her father whose appeal verdict will be announced on Thursday, September 27th. This date comes after the Bahraini court decision to postpone his hearing this week, a move that his lawyers claim was an attempt to prolong his jail-time. A countless number of international human rights organizations have joined in this call to action, and nearly 20 members of U.S. Congress demanded Rajab's release in a letter to the King of Bahrain. Following his August 16th sentence, U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called on Bahrain to "vacate" the charges against Rajab and called for "the government of Bahrain to take steps to build confidence across Bahraini society and to begin a meaningful dialogue with political opposition and civil society."

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

These condemnations from the State Department, however, are not reflected in U.S. policy toward the Bahraini monarchy. Despite the well-documented violence against its citizens, the U.S. Department of Defense resumed arms sales to Bahrain, rekindling a relationship that sold $200 million worth of weaponry to the regime in 2010. American companies added further insult to injury by hosting international oil and natural gas conferences and the 2012 Formula 1 Bahrain Grand Prix, amidst the curfews and kidnappings that characterized daily life for the majority of Bahraini citizens. This gaping distance between America's actions and words continues to send a far louder message to Bahraini civilians than the lip-service of the U.S. Department of State.

Bahrain's Radical Regime, Moderate Subversives

Rajab is famous throughout not only the Middle East and North Africa, but also internationally for his tireless human rights advocacy and his pioneering commitment to using social media for social justice. Identified by Al Jazeera as "the informal leader of the Bahraini uprising," Rajab responded that he plans to "forever remain in civil society" when I asked him about any potential political aspirations. Throughout the entirety of the uprising, his commitment to reform has been as steadfast as his tactics have been innovative.

Rajab is not alone in these traits or in his victimhood. What has deteriorated into violent clashes with security forces began as peaceful calls for reform, not Revolution. At the beginning of the uprising, a leader of the largest political bloc in Bahrain's parliament, Matar Ibrahim Matar, described the exhaustive political jockeying in which his party had engaged with the Al-Khalifa family to avoid a breakdown in dialogue. Matar, too, has been subjected to kidnapping, imprisonment, and alleged abuse at the hands of the regime, in addition to threats to his and his family's safety.

"We are proud Bahrainis, despite their [the Al-Khalifa family's] attempts to align us with Iran and call us subversives," he explained. "We wanted to improve our country by continuing a moderate path of reform. That's it. This crisis could and can be avoided."

Indeed, these basic demands for reform were echoed among many of Bahrain's young organizers. 27-year-old banker Mohammed*, a particularly visionary online organizer but not who one my typically picture as a "subversive," imagines Bahrain as "the Singapore of the Middle East." "I've done the math," he explained in our interview. "And the discrimination against the majority of our people only serves to hinder our entrepreneurial potential."

America's Strategic Mistake

In my visit to and subsequent coverage of the Bahraini uprising, I encountered a countless number of moderate voices -- doctors, lawyers, teachers, parents -- all of whom are simply demanding equal treatment and opportunity in their country regardless of ethnicity. In light of the midnight kidnappings, abuse, torture, threats, and politically-motivated imprisonment, it appears that it is not the "subversives" in Bahrain who are radical -- it is the regime.

America undoubtedly has both hard and soft power interests in Bahrain. Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, a site of significant strategic importance for America's security and economic interests in the Gulf. It is also a producer of oil and natural gas and a business hub in the Middle East and South Asia. The United States has undeniable security and economic interests in maintaining a long-term, sustainable relationship with Bahrain, and yet, our government has consistently ignored the reasonable overtures of Bahrain's sophisticated, moderate opposition in favor of an increasingly isolated, radical royal family.

In my interview, Matar described his meetings as a political leader with both Secretary Clinton and former Secretary Rice on their previous visits to Bahrain. "I appreciated her honesty when she responded 'we have our interests' when I confronted her about the government's abuses," he recalled from a meeting with former Secretary Rice. "But what the Pentagon needs to understand is that it is unnecessary for America's interests to come at the expense of our citizen's basic rights. There are constructive alternatives here; it's a choice to ignore us, a choice that speaks volumes of America's long-term commitment to the U.S.-Bahrain relationship."

Matar's words reflect those of his colleague, Nabeel Rajab, currently awaiting his appeal this month from a Bahraini prison cell. In our interview last year, Rajab explained: "Bahraini human rights and American national interests are not two mutually-exclusive goals -- they actually fulfill one another."

It is time for the U.S. government to acknowledge this basic concept, to forge a sustainable, constructive foreign policy toward Bahrain, and to stop jeopardizing long-term American interests for short-term political discomfort. A foreign policy that guarantees Bahrainis' basic human right does not undermine U.S. national interest -- it reinforces it.