Lessons for the Next US Ambassador to Bahrain
It looks like Steven Bondy is to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain. President Joe Biden has nominated him for the post, and assuming he passes the Senate confirmation hearings, he’ll take up residence in Manama in what - hopefully - might be a period of transition in the Bahraini government.
The island kingdom is a long-term U.S. military ally. It is also a repressive dictatorship where a minority Sunni sect rules the majority Shia population. Human Rights First has for many years documented Bahraini government violence against human rights defenders and other systemic abuses in the country.
The king’s uncle, who had been the country’s unelected prime minister since 1971, died last November, and the younger, nominally reformist, Crown Prince has stepped into the job (also unelected).
Optimists sense some straws in the wind - dozens of prisoners have been given conditional releases in recent weeks, and there is much fashionable talk of “modernization” by the governing elite. Yet the fundamental problems remain: Bahrain doesn’t permit opposition groups or independent media to exist. Its Human Rights Defenders have been forced into exile or are kept in prison. Its politics are completely controlled by the ruling family.
Trying to juggle complaining about human rights abuses to the monarchy while maintaining the military alliance, which includes Bahrain hosting the largest U.S. military base in the middle east, is a tricky job for any American ambassador to Bahrain.
I don’t have a favorite American diplomat (that would be weird) but I’ve enjoyed talking to former U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain Thomas Krajeski, who was there from 2011 and 2014. Most of our conversations have been profound disagreements about U.S. complicity in the repression, but he has always been candid.
In a new podcast, Krajeski is characteristically frank about the challenges he had dealing with Bahrain’s ruling family, and Bondy will face a similar dynamic.
Krajeski explains how he arrived in 2011 soon after the government had crushed popular pro-democracy protests, and that an independent inquiry into the crackdown had detailed the abuse and recommended reforms. When he arrived in the kingdom, some U.S. military sales to Bahrain had been suspended in protest of the Bahraini security forces’ violence.
He says trying to defend U.S. interests meant being simultaneously pulled in opposite directions, as there was and still is a “contradiction of two major policies: One, to push for democratic reform…and two, to make certain this valuable military relationship remained strong.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told him to "walk and chew gum" at the same time, and to somehow push both agendas. But Washington's priorities “flip-flopped, literally day-to-day.”
He says the U.S.’s own poor record on rights was an embarrassment too. He recounts how the kingdom’s elections were rigged and “basically guaranteed there would not be a [opposition] majority in the parliament….The man in charge of the gerrymandering effort, one of the members of the royal court…looked at me and said ‘We learned it all from you’.”
Real stability will only come to Bahrain when there is an inclusive government where rights are respected. Krajeski is right to warn that unless progress is made on political reform, “the Shia, who are disadvantaged and remain out of power where it counts: in the military and in the government, will eventually rise up again on the streets and those demonstrations will turn violent. It happens about every ten years.”
Another uprising is due now. If Bondy isn’t to step into another explosive crisis, the Biden administration should immediately push its ally to finally make the immediate and wholesale political and rights reforms Bahrain needs.