The gulf between rhetoric and reality

The hypocrisy of the demands for intervention in Libya is exposed by the near-silence over the crackdown in Bahrain.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics World

With the world’s media focused on the disaster in Japan, perhaps it seemed like a good day for desperate tyrants to try to bury bad news. That doesn’t just apply to Colonel Gaddafi’s attempts to bomb Libyan rebels into submission. Over in the Middle East’s smallest nation, Bahrain, current king Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa was busy adding 1,000 soldiers from Saudi Arabia to his own 10,000-strong security force. Whichever way this is viewed, it did not look like the act of a regime ready to make democratic concessions to the thousands of protesters amassed in Manama, the capital city, since the ‘day of rage’ over a month ago.

On the contrary, it looked like an act of imminent aggression, an impression given added credence by Sheikh Hamad’s decision on Monday to declare a three-month-long state of emergency. And then, today, the Bahraini monarchy’s security force rolled into Pearl Square, the centre of the protests, and used tear gas to remove the protesters – several of whom were killed in the process. A statement read out on state television the day before crackled with what now seems ominous intent: ‘the commander of Bahrain’s defence forces [is] to take all necessary measures to protect the safety of the country and its citizens’.

For the thousands of protesters amassed on the streets of Manama, they knew what the Bahraini state meant when it talked of ‘protection’ and ‘safety’. After all, that is why they have been out there protesting against it. They want democracy and greater freedom from the state, not its dictatorial ‘protection’.

For over 200 years, Bahrain’s mainly Shia population has lived under the autocratic, and no doubt protective, rule of the Sunni Al Khalifa family. Yes, there are elections, but it is a measure of just how democratic these are that half the cabinet is related to the Al Khalifa family while the prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, is the king’s uncle. That the majority Shia population – around 70 per cent – are hardly represented in the Sunni-dominated parliament due to the rigging of the constituency boundaries and the dishing out of voting rights to Sunni Arab foreigners, confirms the sense that Bahrain is democratic in name only. Not that the protesters’ resentment is born of a Shia-Sunni antagonism. Many Sunnis have joined the struggle for greater freedom from the oppressive Al Khalifa family. As one of the protesters’ banners said, ‘the king and his cronies don’t speak for us’.

It is because of the trouble in which the Bahraini regime finds itself that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) kindly offered support in the form of those 1,000 Saudi troops. The GCC’s military assistance is really an act of self-preservation. Formed in 1981 against the backdrop of the Islamic revolution in Iran and the Iraq-Iran war, the GCC is a loose alliance of six thoroughly autocratic states: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain. There’s variety in the forms of their autocracy, ranging from kingdoms to sheikhdoms. But their content is resolutely unfree, with limited or non-existent political participation. What unites them is a fear of an Iran-style, Iran-sponsored revolution or, just as bad, a democracy-inspired rebellion. If one of their number falls, then the possibility becomes real that another would quickly follow.

So, with the forces of tyranny lined up on one side, and a popular rebellion on the other, where does the US state, and its allies in the West, stand? After all, the coalition of the sort-of-willing has recently been full of itself over the prospect of military intervention in Libya, with dreams of a no-fly zone looking like they might become a reality. It’s enough to get the champions of liberal intervention trilling with joy. Intervention is the right thing to do; it’s the ethical thing do. The message is that Western governments ought to be on the side of the people against very bad men because that’s what they’re all about.

Or at least, that’s the message when it comes to the considerably easier target of mad-dog Gaddafi. But when it comes to Bahrain, things are very different. No one is calling for US or British jets to patrol the skies over Manama or for the Americans to start arming the protesters. Instead, even after the foreign Saudi Arabian army rolled into Bahrain to help out an ailing fellow despot, the US could barely muster a critical note. President Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney, opted instead for ‘concerned’: ‘We are calling on the Saudis, the other members of the GCC countries, as well as the Bahraini government, to show restraint.’ This is hardly a ringing endorsement of the Bahraini people’s struggle to rid themselves of an oppressive regime – it sounds more like a call for their oppressors to ‘go easy on ‘em’. Elsewhere, the tone has been straightforwardly equivocal with a further White House statement urging both protesters and government ‘to produce a dialogue that addresses the needs of all of Bahrain’s citizens’. Quite what dialogue demands Saudi troops and tanks is unclear.

Of course, the US’s reticence to condemn the Bahraini regime, let alone get stuck in militarily, is hardly a surprise. Bahrain, located in the middle of the Persian Gulf, is a key strategic ally for the US, as the 3,000 military personnel, 30 naval ships and 30,000 sailors stationed there clearly attest. Moreover, Bahrain’s fortunes are closely linked with its GCC ally and fellow monarchy Saudi Arabia, itself the crucial Middle Eastern ally for the US. In other words, the US doesn’t want ‘regime change’ in Bahrain, it wants the status quo, or at least a version of it. That’s why all the talk has been of ‘stability’ and ‘dialogue’. While a popular rebellion might be an opportunity for a bit of Western moral posturing in Libya, in Bahrain it’s a cause for considerable angst.

This gets at the morally compromised heart of the liberal interventionist creed. For all its ethical, do-gooding rhetoric, for all the talk of helping others, of sorting out their problems, liberal interventionism is entirely self-serving. So while it might suit Western states’ need for purpose and moral coherence to showboat over the Libyan conflict, in Bahrain it suits them far more to remain quiet and hope for a return to the oppressive-but-stable good old days. What is clear is that whether they are posing in (or indeed over) the Libyan desert or defending a beleaguered Gulf ally, the interests of the Arab peoples are of little concern to Western powers.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics World


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