The State Department notified Congress on Wednesday that it supports selling F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain without requiring that the tiny island monarchy in the Persian Gulf first improve its human rights record.
The decision to proceed with the sale amounts to an abrupt reversal of an Obama administration decision. Last fall, the State Department informed Congress that it would pursue a $5 billion sale of 19 Lockheed Martin F-16s and related equipment to Bahrain. But it included the precondition that Bahrain curb human rights abuses, amid a crackdown on dissidents among the Shiite majority protesting the country’s Sunni rulers.
The about-face reflects the Trump administration’s determination to train its focus on countering Iran’s influence in the region. The Sunni leaders of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain consider the Shiite theocracy of Iran to be a regional threat to their existence. Bahrain has a unique position for U.S. national security, too, as the home of the Navy’s Fifth Fleet headquarters, responsible for keeping the shipping lanes open in the waterways traversed by oil tankers.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who met this month with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has said that the United States should give priority to its own strategic interests, part of the Trump administration’s “America First” philosophy.
The State Department declined to confirm it has decided to drop the arms-sale leverage it had used to promote respect for human rights in Bahrain.
“As a matter of policy, the department does not comment upon or confirm proposed U.S. defense sales or transfers until they have been formally notified to Congress,” a State Department official said.
Human Rights Watch urged Congress to restore human rights as a precondition of sale.
“At a moment when Bahrain is in the middle of an intensified crackdown, removing the conditions attached to the F-16 sale will validate hard-liners in the government who want to completely silence dissent and walk away from commitments on reform,” said Sarah Margon, the Washington director of the advocacy group. “Congress should use its authority to correct course and, unless the conditions remain, block the sale.”
But in a statement released by his office Wednesday night, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said there are better ways to get Bahrain to treat its own citizens with dignity than setting preconditions for arms sales.
“This type of conditionality would be unprecedented and counterproductive to maintaining security cooperation and ultimately addressing human rights issues,” he said in a statement. “There are more effective ways to seek changes in partner policies than publicly conditioning weapons transfers in this manner.”
The State Department notification kicks off a 40-day review by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, although it could be shorter if everyone on the committee clears the sale, or longer if a member places a hold on it. That is followed by a 30-day review before the sale can move forward.
Tillerson raised eyebrows this year when he did not appear in person for the unveiling of the annual Human Rights Report, as secretaries of state have traditionally done in a statement of American values. With the new administration just getting its footing in foreign policy, the report this year was largely the product of the State Department run by Tillerson’s predecessor, John F. Kerry.
The report cited several serious human rights problems, including arbitrary killings by government security forces and torture.
The State Department’s notice to Congress came the same day that Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, told a House committee that Iran poses a threat to U.S. interests and regional stability. In his prepared remarks, Votel cited Bahrain as an example of an ally that has strong military cooperation with the United States. He said concerns over Bahrain’s human rights abuses had slowed the F-16 sales and continued to “strain the relationship.”