Last week I noted that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) had taken the Obama administration to task for not holding up arms sales to Bahrain, which seems intent on using such aid to oppress its own people. It looks like he made his point. Reuters reports:
The Obama administration has told U.S. lawmakers it is delaying a planned $53 million arms sale to Bahrain, a key Gulf ally, pending the outcome of a local investigation into alleged human-rights abuses since an uprising in February.
The handling of the issue is sensitive because of U.S. security interests in Bahrain, host of U.S. naval headquarters in the Gulf for more than 60 years and a pivot for U.S. efforts to deter Iran.
The State Department, in an October 14 reply to members of Congress, said it would hold off until it could review the findings of a Bahrain “Independent Commission of Inquiry” due to report to the nation’s king on October 30.
Rubio was not alone in demanding this action. As the Associated Press pointed out, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) “and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) have introduced a resolution blocking the arms sale, which includes Humvees and missiles. At least a half-dozen senators, including Wyden, have written to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton criticizing Bahrain’s human rights violations and resistance to calls for reform. They have said completing the arms sale would weaken U.S. credibility amid democratic transitions in the Middle East.”
The center of gravity on human rights has shifted to the Congress under this administration, in large part because of the administration’s lack of concern and initiative. This is true on Russia. It is likewise the case on Iran.
By and large, these efforts have been broadly bipartisan and in reaction to slothful delay by the administration. It has been Congress and outside human rights groups that have counteracted the administration’s tendency to take repressive regimes at their word, offer up benefits and then hope the regimes make good on their promises.
This was certainly in evidence with regard to Bahrain, as the Los Angeles Times reported:
The Obama administration has been quietly pressing the kingdom to share more power with its Shiite majority, while trying to avoid any damage to the vital U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh strongly supports the Bahraini monarchy and wants to preserve the status quo threatened by the protests that broke out this spring.
U.S. officials have publicly put their faith in the kingdom’s promises of a political dialogue and an independent commission organized in July to look into alleged human rights abuses. But human rights advocates and some lawmakers have seen little progress from the political discussions and are skeptical that the investigative commission will find much fault with the government.
They say that Bahrain would take a U.S. arms sale as a sign that Washington approves of its handling of the confrontation with activists.
“As long as the Bahraini government and its security forces are using violence, unjust military trials and alleged torture against peaceful protesters, the U.S. government should not be sending more weapons there,” said Sanjeev Bery of Amnesty International.
There certainly isn’t a substitute for forceful promotion of human rights from the executive branch. The administration’s silence on Iran was devastating to the Green Revolution in June 2009. Our inactivity for months allowed Syria’s Bashar al-Assad breathing room to kill his own people. And the administration seems intent on undermining congressional action against human rights abusers in Russia. That said, U.S. human rights policy could be much worse under Obama if the administration were left to its own devices.