Two Middle Eastern countries experience widespread protests against their government in the Arab Spring. Both countries have a powerful leader who regularly abuses human rights. Both countries' governments respond to rising protests with violent reprisals. And, accurately or not, both countries feature a political opposition that is viewed as calling for something like democracy by many observers in the West. Then the two countries' paths diverge. One is quickly and violently overthrown in a NATO-led intervention championed by the US and the French, descending into chaos shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, the second country continued to receive foreign aid throughout the process, enjoy warm relations with the United States, and the oppressive leader remained in power. After the initial conflict was over, affairs in both countries soon faded from the news cycle.
The first country was Libya. The second country was Bahrain.
And while there are several legitimate differences between the two (in terms of demographic makeup, size, religion, etc.), none of them adequately explain the disparate response. The much more compelling answer was actually offered by then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, when he gave a surprisingly honest answer on one of the weekly political shows. Here's the exchange back from 2011:
AMANPOUR: What about other countries, such as Bahrain, such as Yemen? If the United States military is attacking to protect civilians in Libya, why not in Bahrain and Yemen?
MULLEN: Well, I think, first of all, just back to Libya, a very important part of this has been the Arab League vote to establish a no-fly zone and the -- the partners -- the coalition partners that are coming into play with respect to Libya.
AMANPOUR: Correct. But what's the logic?
MULLEN: In terms of...
AMANPOUR: Of other people being -- civilians being killed in other countries where the U.S. has an interest?
MULLEN: Well, I think -- I think we have to -- to be very careful to treat every country differently. Certainly, there's a tremendous change going on right now throughout the Middle East, including in Bahrain. And Bahrain is a much different -- in a much different situation than Libya.
We haven't had a relationship with Libya for a long, long time. The Bahrainis and that country has been a critical ally for decades. So we're working very hard to support a peaceful resolution there, as tragic as it has been, and we certainly decry the violence which has occurred in Bahrain. I just think the approach there needs to be different.
AMANPOUR: Do you think the Libyans have the wherewithal to retaliate against the United States or its allies in the region or here?Or to state matters more simply, the difference is that Bahrain is a US ally, and Libya was not. So the US simply decries the violence in Bahrain, without bothering to mention that the perpetrator of that violence was the government of Bahrain.
Of course, to point out the disparity is not to suggest that the Libya treatment would have been preferable for Bahrain. It might have been more convenient, since the Navy's Fifth Fleet is already conveniently located in the capital. But the final outcome of such an intervention would probably look a lot like Libya does now--an unmitigated disaster and human tragedy.
But of course, the options for US foreign policy ought to be more diverse than Endorse or Bomb. And, as a practical matter, we might get better policy results if we lowered our expectations. Historically speaking, we should be well beyond the point where we can seriously imagine US interventions--well-intentioned or otherwise, economic or military--are going to improve the situation in another region or country. Instead, we should instead ask for something more modest: that our policy doesn't contribute to making a bad situation worse.
In Bahrain and elsewhere, current US policy does not meet that standard.
Today, we're recommending a new article that details some of the ongoing oppression that's happening in Bahrain, including people getting jailed for tearing up photos of the king or critical tweets. It also includes people appealing their convictions only to see their punishments increased as a result. The full article is worth a read, and you can also check out an interview with the author on the Scott Horton Show that goes in further detail.
And if you're an American, the key point to bear in mind as you learn about Bahrain is that the US government has continued giving millions of dollars to the regime throughout this process.