As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton had a wrongheaded policy on Bahrain and supported the regime while it cracked down on protesters and trampled its own people’s human rights. But that folly had nothing to do with the Clinton Foundation; it was part of the Obama administration’s overall muddled reaction to the Arab Spring.
Much has been made this week of the revelation that in June 2009, Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa requested a meeting with the newly minted secretary of state through Doug Band, an official with the Clinton Foundation and a longtime Clinton family associate. Band reached out to Clinton’s deputy chief of staff, Huma Abedin, who subsequently arranged the meeting through official government-to-government channels.
Correspondence about the request was released by the conservative advocacy group Judicial Watch, which is pressing a Freedom of Information Act-related lawsuit against Clinton in response to her use of a private email server. The Kingdom of Bahrain has donated between $50,000 and $100,000 to the foundation, and the Crown Prince has spent about $32 million on an educational program that funds Bahraini students in conjunction with the Clinton Global Initiative.
Of course, the heir to the throne of a major non-NATO ally does not need to donate to get a meeting with the U.S. secretary of State. Salman met regularly with Clinton and other senior Obama administration officials throughout the first term of the administration, and there’s no evidence he donated to foundations related to President Obama, Vice President Biden or then-Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who all gave him the red carpet treatment.
“Secretary Clinton’s closeness to the Crown Prince of Bahrain, along with the rest of the Obama administration, is problematic but it would be true with or without the Clinton Foundation connection,” said Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy. “Our government being too close to Gulf dictators was true before Clinton came to office and it continues to be a problem now.”
The real mistake in Clinton’s handling of the Bahrain issue was not her meeting with Salman. Her error was leading a policy that enabled the Bahraini regime as it crushed domestic unrest and undermined the rule of law in response to peaceful protests that were part of the Arab Spring.
I interviewed Clinton in Bahrain in late 2010, during her first trip there for the Manama Dialogue on security. In her keynote speech to the conference, she spoke of promoting universal values such as freedom of speech in Bahrain and the rest of the Middle East.
“People of this region, like people everywhere, express the same basic wish: to live free from violence, free from intimidation, free to develop their talents and pursue their dreams in an atmosphere of stability and peace,” she said. “It is in our interests to help the people of the Gulf fulfill that vision and I believe we have the capacity to do so.”
Months later, the Bahraini regime reacted to peaceful protests in their capital with brutal violence, mass arrests, persecution of the political opposition, and a crackdown on civil society and human rights organizations. Bahrain was experiencing its own version of the Arab Spring.
Initially, the Clinton State Department took a strong stance against the crackdown. The Obama administration cut off most U.S. arms shipments to Bahrain and issued several strong statements calling for the Bahraini government to respect its people’s human rights and make reforms toward more democratic and inclusive government.
But a year later, in May 2012, Clinton welcomed Salman to the State Department and moved forward with a host of weapons sales for the Bahraini Defense Forces. State Department officials said at the time they made that decision “on national security grounds” despite “serious, unresolved human rights issues in Bahrain.”
As I reported at the time, the hope inside the Obama administration was that sending the crown prince home with a gift basket of weapons deals would empower him inside the Bahraini system. The thinking was that he was more moderate than his regime rivals and would be in a better position to push reforms Washington wanted.
But when I went back to the Manama Dialogue in 2012 (it was canceled in 2011 due to the violence), the crown prince was not appreciative of Clinton’s gesture. He snubbed the United States in his keynote speech. Clinton decided not to attend that year.
After Clinton left office, the State Department’s attention moved to other hot spots, such as Syria and Iraq, but the Bahraini regime’s bad behavior continued. In 2014, the regime deported the State Department’s top human rights official just for meeting with opposition leaders and continued arresting human rights advocates.
Nevertheless, Secretary of State John F. Kerry completely removed the ban on selling weapons to Bahrain last year, over the objections of human rights leaders and concerned lawmakers from both parties. This year, the regime’s crackdown and arrests of opposition politicians have intensified. The State Department’s own reporting shows the regime has failed to live up to its agreed commitments to reform.
“There was this argument that if we gave them everything they wanted, that would encourage them to move in the right direction, and we’ve seen exactly the opposite,” said McInerney. “The administration caved as the Bahraini government expected it to. Now all these governments expect to get what they ask for so they don’t believe they have any incentive to do what the U.S. asks them to do.”
Clinton, along with the rest of the Obama administration, initially supported most Middle East movements for greater dignity and self-representation, but then reverted to supporting some of those regimes when the Arab Spring turned into the Arab Winter. It was a tough problem that the entire U.S. government bungled badly and continues to struggle with.
But none of that had anything to do with the Clinton Foundation.