Washington's new ambassador to Bahrain, Bill Roebuck, is set to take up his post in the coming weeks and will be hoping for a smoother ride than his predecessor Tom Krajeski, who was attacked by both the Bahrain government for meddling in internal affairs and by his own State Department for his "belief that reactive 'seat of the pants' leadership works best in Bahrain's challenging environment [which] has left staff members who do not have access to him on a regular basis confused."
Roebuck doesn't decide U.S. policy on Bahrain, but he will be in charge of explaining it to Bahrain's government and people, setting the tone for how the U.S. embassy there is seen.
It's a difficult time for Bahrain, which has yet to come to terms with the large-scale prodemocracy protests which broke out in the country in early 2011. The United States has been seen by both the Bahraini government and civil society as a weak friend, having to failed to spell out the changes it would like to see in the coming years and how the kingdom might get there. Too often the administration's criticisms of the Bahraini regime's human rights abuses have been muted, and when it has spoken out its officials -- including Ambassador Krajeski -- have been sharply rebuked by the regime and its supporters. Senior State Department official Tom Malinowski made a return trip to Bahrain earlier this month to mend fences following his expulsion from the country after he met with opposition leaders there in July. This year too has seen Bahrain's government develop closer ties to the Kremlin and refuse entry to U.S. Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA).
The ambassadorship will be a tough challenge for Roebuck who no doubt will be tested and attacked in Bahrain's government-friendly media.
Here are seven useful things Ambassador Roebuck can do when he arrives in Bahrain:
1. Hit the Ground Running
The ambassador is likely to arrive in the weeks leading up to the fourth anniversary of the February 14 protests, when tension is likely to be high. He should take initiative soon after arriving, showing that he is there to build relationships with the government but also with civil society. At his nomination hearings he rightly told the Senate committee that he intended to defy the Bahrain government's ban on foreign diplomats meeting with opposition leaders. He should do that soon to set the precedent that this will be part of his regular schedule.
2. Be Seen With Civil Society Activists
In his first few weeks, Ambassador Roebuck should publicly announce that he will meet with leading human rights defenders such as Nabeel Rajab if they want him to, and ask to visit those who are in prison. He should make clear that he is not doing this to provoke the Bahrain government or its supporters, but that this is part of an ambassador's job, the bread and butter of establishing relationships with leading civil society figures. Many of Bahrain's prominent and peaceful civil society leaders, such as Abdulhadi Al Khawaja and Mahdi Abu Deeb, are still in jail.
3. Observe Trials of Human Rights Defenders
The U.S. embassy has sent observers to some of the many political trials in Bahrain over the last few years. Ambassador Roebuck should visit some hearings himself to get a sense of how Bahrain's courts work and why those of us who have seen the courts in action firsthand complain about unfair trials. Prominent human rights defender Mohamed al Maskati is due a verdict on December 25 on charges of attending an illegal gathering on 2012, and Nabeel Rajab's next court date is set for January 20, 2015 in a case where he is being prosecuted for "denigrating government institutions" on Twitter. The U.S. government has called for the charges against Rajab, which carry up to six years in prison, to be dropped. The ambassador should consider going to those hearings. Bahraini human rights activists who have been convicted have expressed disappointment that U.S. embassy observers at their trial didn't then speak up about the injustices they had witnessed, when trial proceedings clearly fell far short of international standards. Ambassador Roebuck should instruct U.S. embassy observers to adopt a "See Something, Say Something" approach when the hearings appear unfair.
4. Don't Run From The Media
Ambassador Roebuck can expect some vilification from the Bahraini media but he should resist the temptation to be quiet on human rights issues. He should regularly hold briefings with local media and (where possible) international media in Bahrain, outlining U.S. policy to support civil society. He should publicly call for access by international media -- which is often restricted by the Bahraini authorities -- and for international human rights organizations to be allowed into Bahrain.
5. Explain What His Job Is
The U.S. embassy in Bahrain has done a poor job of explaining to supporters of the Bahraini government that ambassadors are supposed to criticize human rights abuses, even and especially when they're committed by U.S. allies. Ambassador Roebuck should devote resources to showing that U.S. rhetoric on human rights is not confined to Bahrain by having the March 2013 document on supporting human rights defenders, issued by the State Department, translated into Arabic and posted on the embassy website to show that supporting activists is something American embassies are supposed to do worldwide. He could also have translated and posted on the embassy website the September 2014 presidential directive on supporting civil society, which instructs all U.S. agencies engaged abroad everywhere to promote and protect civil society.
6. Challenge the Human Rights vs. Security Rhetoric
During his Senate hearing in September, Ambassador Roebuck encouragingly remarked that, "I believe that a country that protects and promotes human rights will ultimately be a more stable country and a more effective security partner." This is refreshingly different from a common U.S. government analysis on Bahrain that there is a choice between either protecting human rights or American security interests. The ambassador should make clear to his embassy staff and others in the Departments of State, Defense and elsewhere that if they want stability in Bahrain they need to talk publicly about promoting more human rights, not less. The ambassador should join a discussion with other foreign embassies on the need to fight extremism and sectarianism in Bahrain, including in the country's security forces, which are trained and equipped by the U.S. government.
7. Clarify U.S. Policy on Political Prisoners and Dialogue
In May 2011 President Obama publicly told the Bahrain government that, "The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail." This statement encouraged peaceful democracy activists in Bahrain; Many even know it by heart. It represented the United States standing with them against repression. Since this statement was made, neither the president nor any senior U.S. official has made a similar statement. The ambassador should clarify if Washington still maintains the position that real political dialogue in Bahrain can't happen while key political leaders are in jail, and if not why.