Lessons to be drawn from contradictory U.S. approaches to Ukraine and Bahrain

Demonstration in Bahrain in 2012.

Demonstration in Bahrain in 2012.

The last three months of protests in Ukraine have provided eye-opening insights into the dynamics of effective strategies for toppling governments that revolutionaries around the world would do well to take note of. Perhaps more noteworthy, however, are the insights offered into the mindset of U.S. policymakers, namely how shamelessly hypocritical they can be in their treatment of protest movements depending on the goals and geopolitical alignments of those movements.

While U.S. officials vocally supported the Euromaidan protests from the beginning, publicly chastising Ukrainian authorities for using force against demonstrators and declining from forcefully condemning acts of violence committed by protesters, U.S. policy towards Bahrain, which has been in the grips of peaceful popular protests for democracy since 2011, has taken a much different approach.

For three years, the U.S. government has been turning a blind eye to the wanton abuses committed in Bahrain, continuing to sell weapons to the Bahraini regime and docking the Navy’s Fifth Fleet on the country’s shores. The three years of unrest has compelled the Obama administration to reluctantly place a hold on sales of some military equipment that could easily be used against protesters, but the U.S. has continued to supply equipment for Bahrain’s “external defense capabilities.”

Human rights groups, however, point out that some of the equipment the U.S. continues to provide, such as Cobra helicopters, have been used against protesters and that the United States cannot be sure that sales to and training of Bahraini military forces is not being used to crush unrest.

Amnesty International’s 2013 country report on Bahrain noted that “The authorities continued to crack down on protests and dissent” and “Scores of people remained in prison or were detained for opposing the government, including prisoners of conscience and people sentenced after unfair trials.”

Further, human rights defenders were harassed and imprisoned and “security forces continued to use excessive force against protesters, resulting in deaths, and allegedly tortured or otherwise ill-treated detainees,” Amnesty reported.

With these human rights abuses in mind, the continued U.S. military aid to the country is likely being carried out in violation of humanitarian obligations under international law. According to the International Law Commission (ILC), the official UN body that codifies customary international law,

A State which aids or assists another State in the commission of an internationally wrongful act by the latter is internationally responsible for doing so if: (a) that State does so with knowledge of the circumstances of the internationally wrongful act; and (b) the act would be internationally wrongful if committed by that State” (Article 16 of the International Law Commission, “Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts,” (2001) which were commended by the General Assembly, A/RES/56/83).

Further, the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act stipulates that “no security assistance may be provided to any country the government of which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” and the Arms Export Control Act  authorizes the supply of U.S. military equipment and training only for lawful purposes of internal security, “legitimate self-defense,” or participation in UN peacekeeping operations or other operations consistent with the UN Charter.

Earlier this month, Human Rights First pleaded with the U.S. government to use the third anniversary of the Bahraini uprising to at least push for the release of human rights defenders who have been imprisoned since the peaceful democratic uprising began.

“Human rights activists in Bahrain wonder when President Obama will act on his 2011 pledge that the United States ‘cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just,’” said Human Rights First’s Brian Dooley. “The Bahraini government’s repression over the last three years, including its jailing of political dissidents, has made the country more unstable. It’s time the United States told its ally that its relationship with Bahrain can’t afford another year like the last three.”

While the Obama administration won’t even call for the release of Bahraini political prisoners, much less move towards implementing sanctions against the Bahraini regime for its gross human rights abuses over the past three years, U.S. policymakers wasted no time in threatening sanctions against President Viktor Yanukovych’s government in Ukraine after police attempted to quell the pro-EU demonstrations this winter.

The first threat of sanctions came on Jan. 7, a little more than a month after protests began, in a Senate resolution which warned the Ukrainian government that “in the event of further state violence against peaceful protestors, the President and Congress should consider whether to apply targeted sanctions.”

These threats were reiterated by President Obama on Feb. 19, warning that “there will be consequences if people step over the line,” and saying he holds the government “primarily responsible” for showing restraint in dealing with the opposition.

Going beyond diplomatic reprimands of the Ukrainian government, policymakers have gone to absurd and unprecedented lengths to make clear their solidarity and support for the Euromaidan protesters. In mid-December, U.S. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) – both members of the Foreign Relations Committee – flew to Ukraine and addressed a crowd of demonstrators in Kyiv.

GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS -  Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), left, takes a photograph as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) makes a speech to pro-European integration protesters in Kyiv.

GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS – Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), left, takes a photograph as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) makes a speech to pro-European integration protesters in Kyiv.

“We are here,” said McCain, “to support your just cause: the sovereign right to determine [Ukraine’s] own destiny freely and independently. And the destiny you seek lies in Europe.” Murphy added, “Ukraine’s future stands with Europe, and the U.S. stands with Ukraine.”

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland feeds cookies to Ukraine protesters.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland feeds cookies to Ukraine protesters.

Not to be outdone, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt went to the barricades in Kyiv to hand out cookies and buns to the demonstrators, in a move widely seen as an implicit message of official U.S. support to the Euromaidan protests. As Voice of Russia reported,

The recent handing-out of buns and cookies to protesters by the US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland, has become a graphic illustration of the West’s “policy of non-interference”. First, she shook hands with and embraced the demonstrators and only then left for a meeting with President Yanukovych, whom she lectured for a couple of hours on the poor treatment of the opposition.

President Obama also forcefully defended the rights of the protesters, despite the violent turn that the demonstrations took since the initially peaceful gatherings in late November. After renewed violence on Jan. 19 that left 60 policemen injured and a reported 40 or so protesters hurt, the White House said in a statement that the blame for the bloodshed laid squarely with the Ukrainian authorities.

“The increasing tension in Ukraine is a direct consequence of the government failing to acknowledge the legitimate grievances of its people,” the White House said. “Instead, it has moved to weaken the foundations of Ukraine’s democracy by criminalizing peaceful protest and stripping civil society and political opponents of key democratic protections under the law.”

While it may be confounding to the casual observer why the U.S. government would take such divergent and contradictory approaches to the two situations in Ukraine and Bahrain, there are a couple of important differences to keep in mind that may help explain the difference in U.S. policy. On one hand, Bahrain is ruled by an unelected dictatorship, while Ukraine’s deposed government was democratically elected.

Also, the Bahraini protests have maintained a commitment to nonviolence, while the Ukrainian protests quickly turned militant following the authorities’ attempt to clear the Maidan of demonstrators on Nov. 30. Following that crackdown, Kyiv was rocked by riots, in which a group of protesters commandeered a bulldozer and attempted to pull down the fence surrounding the Presidential Administration building. Others threw bricks and Molotov cocktails at Berkut guards.

But perhaps the biggest difference between Ukraine and Bahrain, as well as the anti-government protests that have gripped each country, is the geopolitical orientation of the governments. In Bahrain, the Sunni royal family is closely aligned with U.S. ally Saudi Arabia while the Shiite protesters are feared to have support from Iran.

In Ukraine, the deposed leader Viktor Yanukovych had close relations with Moscow, a U.S. adversary. Although Yanukovych also attempted to maintain good relations with Brussels, when it came to choosing between the European Union and the Moscow-led Eurasian Union, he chose the latter. This sealed his fate in the eyes of Western leaders, who seemed intent on embracing the pro-EU demonstrators, no matter how violent or militant their tactics.

This leads to a few lessons that can be drawn from these recent events.

Electoral legitimacy does not matter to U.S. policymakers.

If you were under the misimpression that the United States cares about whether leaders are legitimately elected or not, you would be wrong. Despite his flaws, the fact is Yanukovych was voted into office by Ukrainians in an election that the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights said “met most OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections and consolidated progress achieved since 2004.”

Bahrain, on the other hand, has been ruled by the al-Khalifa dynasty since 1783. The current King of Bahrain, since 2002, is Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and the head of the government, since 1971, is Prime Minister Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, appointed by the king. In other words, Bahrain is an outright dictatorship, yet, there are no cookies handed out for the demonstrators who have risen up in that country, and no words of support for the political prisoners who languish in Bahraini jails.

It doesn’t matter whether protests are peaceful or violent.

As long as protests have policy goals that are shared by the U.S. government, such as overthrowing a leader who has sympathies with a U.S. adversary such as Russia, the U.S. will support those protests no matter how violent they may be. On the other hand, peaceful protests that pose a dilemma to U.S. strategy, for example by threatening a government that hosts a U.S. naval fleet, will be abandoned by U.S. policymakers. No cookies for them.

Violent protests are more effective than peaceful protests, as long as the protests have Western backing.

In three short months, Ukrainian militants managed to topple the Yanukovych government, while in three long years, Bahraini protesters appear no closer to achieving their goals than they were in 2011. The main difference appears to be the fact that Western governments, including the U.S., quickly moved to de-legitimize the Yanukovych government through policy pronouncements that made clear that the government had lost credibility in the eyes of the world. Threats of sanctions appear to have had an effect on many members of the Yanukovych government who began jumping ship and leaving the president out to dry.

U.S. officials are shameless in their hypocrisy.

While U.S. officials insist that foreign governments listen to their people, they obviously couldn’t care less about what the American people have to say about anything. The White House laid the blame for the tension in Ukraine squarely on the government for “failing to acknowledge the legitimate grievances of its people,” called on the authorities to withdraw riot police and effectively absolved protesters for any role they may have had in the violence.

But when Americans rose up in 2011 and 2012 in protest against corruption and income inequality as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Obama administration was virtually silent when the police carried out a nationwide violent crackdown on the encampments. When asked about the police violence against Occupy Oakland in October 2011, White House spokesman Jay Carney laid the blame on the protesters, despite the fact that YouTube videos clearly demonstrate that the police were the instigators.

“As to the violence,” he said, “we obviously believe and insist that everyone behave in a lawful manner, even as they’re expressing, justifiably, their frustrations. It’s also important that laws are upheld and obeyed.”

This is essentially the exact opposite of what administration officials were saying regarding the violence in Kyiv, which was blamed entirely on the police.

So, what we can infer from all this is that all of the U.S. talk of democracy is just that, talk. What the United States is really interested in is geostrategic advantage and global dominance, so if you want to have a protest that the U.S. will back, you should make sure that your protest will advance U.S. geopolitical goals.

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