The US and Bahrain: Sending Ludo home

While US denies “recalling” diplomat from Bahrain, larger issue looms about support for American interests over values.

Gates meeting with diplomats
US defence secretary Gates made an unannounced visit to the island nation in March, as he sought to encourage open dialogue between the kingdom’s rulers and the opposition movement [GALLO/GETTY]

On a sunny day in early March, Bahraini protesters agitated for their rights in broad daylight outside the US embassy in Manama.

They carried signs that said “Give me liberty or give me death” and “Stop supporting dictators”.

Ludovic Hood, a human rights specialist in the political section of the US embassy, offered doughnuts to the protesters – a quintessentially American handout.

In response, a local cleric opined: “These sweets are a good gesture, but we hope it is translated into practical action.”

The predominantly Shia anti-government demonstrators believed that the US government was not putting enough pressure on its ally, the Khalifa family-ruled island kingdom of Bahrain.

Moderates hoped the international community would use its leverage to force Bahrain’s government to establish a true constitutional monarchy and create jobs for unemployed Shia citizens.

And the more extreme protesters bluntly proclaimed: “Down, Down, Khalifa.”

Sent packing

But those protesters did not expect that, just two months later, Hood would be shipped back to the US from his post in Manama – prematurely, some say – after having been threatened on Bahraini pro-government websites.

“[By distributing doughnuts], Hood just wanted to show that he had no objection to protests against US actions,” said Sayed Hadi Al Mosawi, a former parliamentarian, who saw Hood observing court proceedings in October, when the government was trying 25 citizens for plotting to overthrow the regime.

“He did not insult the Bahraini authorities … but the radical [Sunni] parties used this against him,” said al Mosawi, a member of the Shia Islamist Wefaq party who resigned his seat in parliament.

The campaign against Hood – allegedly by hard-line activists belonging to Salafist organisations – went on for two months.

The most fierce posting targeting Hood was published on May 7, in which an anonymous website user accused the US embassy’s political section of being the staunchest supporter of the anti-government protests in Bahrain – and included photos from Hood’s wedding day.

The posts also made thinly veiled threats regarding Hood’s alleged religion. He is apparently not Jewish himself, though his wife is. Such comments are surprising for a country whose ambassador to the US is a Jewish woman.

“We don’t know exactly why Ludovic was sent back after [three years in Bahrain], but it has to do with his relationship to the opposition at large,” said Jasim Husain Ali, an economist at the University of Bahrain who also resigned from his parliamentary seat alongside al Mosawi.

“Authorities in Bahrain were not happy with him. Yet he had no choice but to stay in touch with different groups,” added Husain, referring to Hood as a friend, “who admires the people and culture of Bahrain”.

The state department does not reveal details of security provided for its personnel, but US officials have reportedly suggested that Hood received a security dispatch equivalent to that of an ambassador prior to his departure, implying that his personal safety was a major concern.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Hood’s boss, reportedly complained to Bahrain’s foreign minister in May about the threats.

The Bahraini government declined to comment on Hood’s departure.

Hood had been persistent in his human rights work, which reportedly made him a security liability on the ground. But both the US state department and Bahraini opposition members have told Al Jazeera that Hood was “just doing his job”.

Human rights focus

Hood’s task was to report on court cases involving political dissidents and liaise with a wide spectrum of political groups. Opposition figures say that he was held in high esteem by human rights advocates, but that he had raised the ire of certain factions within Bahrain’s government for having cultivated close ties with detractors of the regime.

“We meet with everyone – all legal entities. We talk to all the groups that we can,” said Shana Kieran, a spokeswoman at the US embassy in Manama, describing the principle behind Hood’s challenging job – and expressing confidence that his replacement would continue along the same lines.

She repeated what state department spokesman Mark Toner had said the week prior in Washington, that Hood was not officially “recalled” from his post and that his return to the US was not “premature”.

Kieran says that Hood had already been scheduled – six months prior – to return to the US for a new assignment, based in Washington DC.

Caught between increasingly polarised factions in the embattled Gulf state, Hood’s brand of diplomacy clearly became unpopular in certain circles.

“Any political officer doing his job well is supposed to be in touch with local organisations, labour unions, NGOs and human rights groups,” said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There’s no way you can do that job without having direct contact.”

Ottaway believes “getting Hood out of the way” was part of a campaign by pro-government factions to “hamper contacts between the [US] embassy and human rights organisations”.

“It’s possible that [Hood] was personally threatened, then they decided to accelerate his departure,” said Ottaway.

But she also said that the allegations against Hood were not credible, having accused Hood both of being a “Zionist” and of conspiring with Hezbollah. “Whoever is accusing him better make up their mind about what they are accusing him of,” she said.

“But the more fundamental issue is – what is the position of the US towards the protesters and Bahraini government and human rights and so on.”

Status quo conservatism

A series of government crackdowns on anti-government demonstrations in the public square formerly known as Pearl Roundabout crushed Bahrain’s revolutionary movement. Two major evictions of the city-centre protest camp – on February 17 and then again on March 16 – sent the agitators home.

The US strategy for Bahrain is divergent from its stance vis-a-vis Egypt and Tunisia, where the US cautiously but actively called for a replacement in ruler in order to placate the demands of a broad coalition of popular groups.

Preserving good relations with the government allows the Fifth Naval Fleet to remain in Bahrain as a counter-balance to Iran across the Gulf.

Opportunistic Iran has tried to use the protests to its political advantage, but there is no proof that they were behind recent unrest.

The US outlook for Bahrain does not appear to include “regime change”, though the US initially seemed to group together Bahrain with other nations at the forefront of the “Arab Spring” in demanding meaningful reform.

To be sure, US policymakers are acutely aware of the severity of a crackdown that has manifested in mass firings, arrests of dissidents, destruction of Shia mosques, torture of medics, and blackmailing schoolchildren.

But a sea change appears to have occurred in mid-March, when anti-government protesters began interfering with Bahrain’s financial centre, threatening university life, and abusing labourers from South Asia.

A protester waves the Bahraini flag as anti-riot police storm Duraz village, north of the capital Manama, Bahrain, as anti-riot police move in [EPA]

“The US has not been as supportive of human rights activists in Bahrain as it would be in other circumstances, and it’s not putting as much pressure on the Bahraini government as it’s putting on Yemen, Syria and other countries where the government is engaged in suppressing protests,” says Ottaway. “It is treating Bahrain differently.”

She says the US is eager “to patch relations with Saudi Arabia … which is upset about what the US did with Egypt, saying that [President Hosni] Mubarak had to quit”.

Saudi Arabia, by far the most populous member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has been the regional bedrock of status quo conservatism, sceptical of revolutionary fervour across the Arab world.

A fresh diplomatic and defence understanding reached in March between US defence secretary Robert Gates and Bahraini officials pushed President Obama further from the anti-government camp.

Some analysts say that Obama could not afford to risk being left with one less “friend” in an increasingly turbulent region, knowing that any successor to the Khalifa family was not guaranteed to be democratic.

Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, after his meeting this week with the US president, said in a statement: “Bahrain is a developing democracy and has many issues to carefully balance as it treads a sustainable path of progress. There is a very real danger in under-appreciating the challenges Bahrain faces and its progress in a regional context.”

But, compared with the liberal sensibilities of the crown prince, hard-line factions are much more critical of US ideological flip-flopping.

“[The US] tries to play it down, but [Hood’s story] does reflect the fact that there is an increase in anti-US and anti-UK sentiment among pro-government Sunnis in Bahrain, essentially the people who do not support the opposition,” Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at Chatham House in London, said.

“[Bahrain’s government] does not understand why Barack Obama would say ‘it’s problematic to try meaningful dialogue’ when opposition leaders are in prison and they are demolishing Shia mosques.”

“There is some tension between the West and the GCC over this issue – but it shouldn’t be exaggerated,” Kinninmont said. “The US has criticised Bahrain mildly but hasn’t backed away from its strong relationship.”

Microcosm of region

Sending Hood home from Bahrain before his time was up may have effectively avoided a confrontation with unsavoury local groups. With the formal lifting of Bahrain’s state of emergency on June 1 and the possibility of fresh negotiations in July, protests look likely to escalate once again.

This individual foreign service officer’s story is not all that revealing in and of itself, but it is representative of a broader problem that the US faces in sorting out its policy.

During his May 19 policy speech that outlined the White House’s Middle East priorities, President Obama made clear the conflict between America’s “short-term interests” and “long-term vision”.

Thr dichotomy could not be more stark – nor complex – than in Bahrain, where a general crackdown lingers; 21 political activists are on trial for trying to overthrow the monarchy and some 1,600 “Peninsula Shield” troops are to stay in the country indefinitely.

US support for the right to peaceful protest has led Arab political elites question the durability of American support for their governments. Many countries are keen to preserve US aid and protection but are sceptical of efforts to reform the region along the lines of Hillary Clinton’s “critical moment” speech in Doha on January 13.

Yet many opposition groups across the region perceive the Obama administration is not doing enough to speak up for them. The US is squeezed between geopolitical imperatives and its democratic values.

“There is no pressure coming from the American public about Bahrain,” Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment says.

“Besides Human Rights Watch and Amnesty [International], most people are paying no attention to what’s going on. With Libya and Syria, [Bahrain] is pretty much a forgotten crisis.”


Follow Ben Piven on Twitter: @benpiven

Source: Al Jazeera