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March 31, 2014

Embassygate In Bahrain Not The Fundamental Problem

The U.S. State Department Inspector General's office has sunk the knife pretty deeply into U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain Thomas Krajeski. A report released last week alleged that his "failure to maintain a robust planning and review process has led to confusion and lack of focus among some staff  members." The report also claimed that "Management controls processes are weak across the board," and "A lack of transparency in management policies exacerbates low morale."

The report charges that Krajeski's "belief that reactive 'seat of the pants' leadership works best in Bahrain's challenging environment has left staff members who do not have access to him on a regular basis confused".

The report from the 11-member team is nothing if not thorough, finding fault in all sorts of places, and making 74 recommendations, including that "Embassy Manama should adopt a policy that forbids drivers to put a car into gear until all passengers fasten their seat belts," and that "Embassy Manama should implement and publish a policy restricting use of personally owned furniture and furnishings."

I cannot assess whether Ambassador Krajeski is as poor a manager as the report suggests- I've only met him a few times, largely because I haven't been allowed into Bahrain for over two years. But when we have spoken, he's been refreshingly frank about the challenges he faces and more open to a candid discussion than many of his colleagues.

Yet some of the report's most interesting findings are not about Krajeski's performance, but the reality of the U.S.-Bahrain relationship and the functioning of the embassy. It states, for example, that "Embassy Manama has two Leahy Vetting officers, both in the political/economic section.... In 2012, the embassy vetted 308 individuals." U.S. Leahy laws prohibit the Departments of State of Defense from providing military assistance to foreign military or police units believed to have violated human rights. It's unclear from this report how many Bahraini security officials were denied U.S. support under this law.

It reports that "It costs the [State] Department approximately $500,000 to train an officer to speak proficient Arabic," that the embassy has 188 employees, a budget of $14 million, and that the Ambassador's residence costs a whopping $272,000 per year (approximately $22,500 per month) to rent.

More worrying is how the State Department Inspector General's office assesses U.S. interests in Bahrain, claiming that "Bahrain's ongoing political crisis has forced the U.S. Government to strive for an effective balance between military objectives, reform, and human rights," as though the "balance" between a military interests and human rights is a zero-sum game.

Elsewhere it claims that "The embassy has two competing policy priorities: to maintain strong bilateral military cooperation and to advance human rights...". This is the mistaken analysis which has driven U.S. policy in Bahrain so far off course in the last few years.

While there is no doubt that scrutinizing how the Bahrain embassy is run is a useful exercise, the real problem that the State Department needs to address is how that embassy fits into a wider push for human rights and the rule of law.

Staying mute about human rights violations while supporting Bahrain's repressive security forces ("close to 90 percent of Bahraini Defense Force equipment is of U.S. origin," says the report) will not lead to stability.  Denying people their basic rights is the surest way to increased volatility and insurrection while promoting rights is leads to real stability and security. For the State Department to declare that these interests are competing is alarming, especially in relation to Bahrain, where continued unrest and a lack of reform makes the political situation increasingly fragile and unpredictable.

Siding with repressive regimes across the Middle East has made the U.S. increasingly unpopular in the region, which is hardly in its short- or long-term interests.  Instead of seeing a tension between its security interests and promoting human rights, the United States should realize that promoting security and human rights are the same thing - a Bahrain that respects the rule of law and democracy is a much more reliable partner than a dictatorship that responds with repression to calls for reform.

This blog was cross-posted from Huffington Post.