Though eclipsed by the April 6 strike on Syria, the Trump administration made another recent foreign policy move that is likely to have severe repercussions for American interests in the Middle East: removing human rights conditions from a multibillion-dollar F-16 sale to Bahrain.
Situated between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the small Arab Gulf kingdom has figured into American strategy even before it began hosting the U.S. Fifth Fleet in 1995. But since then, the Sunni-dominated monarchy – which violently suppressed a cross-sectarian uprising in 2011 – has eagerly positioned itself as a counter to Iran and a key player in the U.S. war on terror.
Some supporters of the deal’s new terms, like Sen. Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, have suggested that human rights conditions would be “counterproductive” to American interests in the region.
Gen. Joseph Votel, the current head of U.S. Central Command, took a more nuanced approach, noting the “need to carefully balance [rights] concerns against our desired outcomes for U.S. security assistance programs” and to “avoid using the programs as a lever of influence or denial to our own detriment.”
The ostensive detriment here, according to administration sources, is that restrictions on weapons transfers to allies with poor human rights records – like Bahrain – could prevent those partners from resisting ISIS or a revanchist Iran.
But throughout this debate, both proponents and critics of the deal’s conditions have generally operated within a false dichotomy. Despite Senator Corker’s vague suggestion of “more effective ways to seek change,” as well as General Votel’s more tempered warnings, security assistance and reform incentives need not be mutually exclusive.
In fact, America’s most senior defense official has seemed to support this very point – and in no other place than Bahrain.
Few would call Defense Secretary James Mattis a shrinking violet when it comes to shoring up American interests, especially against an adventurist Iran. Mattis has been described as holding an “anti-Iran animus…so intense” it got him replaced as head of CENTCOM.
Yet while still at CENTCOM’s helm in 2011, Mattis reportedly suggested that Bahrain’s military would be strengthened, not weakened, by the type of reforms previously tied to the F-16 sale. Rather than accept the Bahraini government narrative – that Iran was the primary driver of the country’s unrest – he seemed to acknowledge the kingdom’s history of broad-based repression and specific anti-Shia discrimination, particularly in the military.
Presaging official U.S. criticism of this same trend in 2012, Mattis allegedly raised his concerns over the sectarianization of the Bahrain Defense Force to its then-chief of staff, offering lessons from the American military’s own history of racial integration.
But – without leverage – his advice went unheeded.
The BDF, a primary recipient of Bahrain’s unique benefits as a major non-NATO ally, remains virtually closed to Shia recruits. While the military doesn’t produce official figures, it is estimated that Shia account for around 5 percent of BDF personnel, despite making up 60-70 percent of Bahrain’s citizen population. In contrast, the total percentage of foreign Sunni recruits in the security sector may be more than 50.
This systematic exclusion led a recent Center for Strategic International Studies report to conclude the BDF “is not a national army,” but rather “the servant of the absolute monarchy.”
Moreover, such structural discrimination risks fostering extremism, and there is evidence that security officials have propagated extremist discourse. The BDF has published a religious pamphlet that denounces several non-Sunni sects of Islam as heretical, for example, and even justifies violence against those who practice certain Shia traditions. This rhetoric matches the testimony of some Pakistani recruits, who have allegedly said they were “called for jihad against [Bahrain’s] Shia community.”
Writing at Foreign Policy, academic Ala’a Shehabi laid out evidence of “a direct link between IS and Bahrain’s security services.” In 2014, the government admitted that more than 100 Bahrainis left to join the extremist group, and just last December there were threats of increased ISIS activity in the kingdom.
Six years ago, Mattis told the BDF it needed to eliminate sectarian discrimination to improve as an armed force. These measures remain vital not only for rectifying age-old grievances, but also building a strong, national army that could best serve as an American defense partner.
However, the new administration’s decision to remove human rights conditions from the F-16 sale threatens to cede a crucial position from which to effect such change.
Retaining these conditions wouldn’t preclude the opportunity for working constructively with Bahrain’s armed services – far from it. The sale is itself an opportunity to demonstrate American commitment to creating a sustainable military in Bahrain – one that will be a source of stability and reconciliation, not of resentment and extremism.
It is imperative that defense analysts and policymakers support these reform incentives as the sale goes to Congress for review. Moreover, it’s critical that they acknowledge and raise serious concerns over sectarian discrimination within the Bahraini military that – along with broader systemic human rights abuses in the kingdom – undermine the security of the Fifth Fleet and only enhance Iranian influence.
To paraphrase General Votel, incorporating demographic integration support into defense sector collaboration with Bahrain is a careful balance of American rights concerns and strategic interests. The inclusion of such reform packages should be rightfully framed as an added benefit, not a constraint.
The question now is whether the U.S. willfully gives ground in Bahrain; or if it does, what’s needed to stabilize a problematic defense partner.