Obama administration seeks to bolster Bahraini crown prince with arms sales

Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa came to Washington this week to attend his son's college graduation, but he left with hands full of gifts from the U.S. State Department, which announced new arms sales to Bahrain today.

The crown prince's son just graduated from American University, where the Bahraini ruling family recently shelled out millions for a new building at AU's School of International Service. But while he was in town, the crown prince met with a slew of senior U.S. officials and congressional leaders, including Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain, as well as several other Washington VIPs.

On Friday afternoon, the State Department announced it was moving forward on a host of sales to the Bahraini Defense Forces, the Bahraini National Guard, and the Bahraini Coast Guard. The State Department said the decision to move forward with the sales was made solely in the interest of U.S. national security, but outside experts see the move as meant to strengthen the crown prince in his struggle inside the ruling family.

"We've made this decision, I want to emphasize, on national security grounds," a senior administration official told reporters on a Friday conference call. "We've made this decision mindful of the fact that there remain a number of serious, unresolved human rights issues in Bahrain, which we expect the government of Bahrain to address."

The official noted that the United States is maintaining its hold on the sale of several items the Bahrainis want, including Humvees, TOW missiles, tear gas, stun grenades, small arms and ammunition.

"The items that we are moving forward with are those that are not typically used for crowd control and that we would not anticipate would be used against protesters in any scenario," the official said.

The official declined to specify items on the list, but multiple sources familiar with the details told The Cable they include six more harbor patrol boats, communications equipment for Bahrain's air defense system, ground-based radars, AMRAAM air-to-air missile systems, Seahawk helicopters, Avenger air-defense systems, parts for F-16 fighter engines, refurbishment items for Cobra helicopters, and night-vision equipment.

The United States also agreed to work on legislation to allow the transfer of a U.S. frigate, will allow the Bahrainis to look at (but not yet purchase) armored personnel carriers, and will ask Congress for $10 million in foreign military financing for Bahrain in fiscal 2013.

Opponents of arms sales to Bahrain were quick to criticize the package, arguing that the administration is sending the wrong message to the regime at a time when the violence between government forces and protesters is actually increasing, as are allegations of prisoner abuse by Bahraini security forces.

"This is exactly the wrong time to be selling arms to the government of Bahrain. Things are getting worse, not better," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) said in a statement to The Cable. "The country is becoming even more polarized and both sides are becoming more entrenched. Reform is the ultimate goal and we should be using every tool and every bit of leverage we have to achieve that goal. The State department's decision is essentially giving away the store without the government of Bahrain bringing anything to the table."

On the conference call, administration officials could not name one concession or deliverable the crown prince gave or promised in exchange for the goodies he is bringing home with him.

But outside analysts believe the administration's strategy is more nuanced, and that the real goal of the arms sales is to bolster the crown prince's standing inside the ruling family in his pitched battle with hard-liners over the way ahead.

"The administration didn't want the crown prince to go home empty-handed because they wanted to empower him," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, who was arrested in Bahrain while documenting protests there last month. "They placed a lot of hope in him, but he can't deliver unless the king lets him and right now the hard-liners in the ruling family seem to have the upper hand."

The crown prince has been stripped of many of his official duties recently, but is still seen as the ruling family member who is most amenable to working constructively with the opposition and with the United States. It's unclear whether sending him home with arms sales will have any effect on internal Bahraini ruling family politics, however.

"That's the gamble the administration is taking, that it helps him show he can deliver something," Malinowski said. "But there's no guarantee the government will do what we all hope it does. They might just as easily conclude ‘We don't have to empower the crown prince at home; we just have to send him to America.'"

While the crown prince has been in Washington, hard-liners like the prime minister and the minister of the royal court have wielded their control over state media to bash the United States and accuse the U.S. government of fomenting the unrest in Bahrain.

"[The] trend in Bahrain is the redoubling of the anti-American media onslaught witnessed in most aggressive form last summer. This is usually a very clear sign that the State Department is pressuring for a deal to be done, and that some in the royal family are fighting back via their allies in society," wrote Justin Gengler, an academic and blogger focused on Bahrain.

He detailed a list of conspiratorial, anti-American allegations in the Bahraini state-controlled media over the last two weeks and noticed that the state media is focusing again on the case of Ludo Hood, the former political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain who was sent home "after being the focus of threats by pro-government citizens."

A high-level delegation from the opposition al-Wefaq party was in Washington this week as well, but they did leave empty handed.

"Many in the administration want to empower the crown prince as the reformer in the royal family against the hard-liners, and didn't want to send him home empty handed after his visit," said Cole Bockenfeld, director of advocacy at the Project on Middle East Democracy. "But no matter how you look at it here in Washington, on the street in Bahrain this will be perceived as the U.S. supporting a regime that is still doing horrible things."

KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

Hagel: Reagan wouldn't identify with today's GOP

The Republican Party has drifted so far to the right and become so partisan in recent years that President Ronald Reagan wouldn't even want to be a part of it, former Nebraska GOP senator Chuck Hagel told The Cable.

"Reagan would be stunned by the party today," Hagel said in a long interview in his office at Georgetown University, where he now teaches. He also serves as co-chair of President Barack Obama's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.

Reagan wanted to do away with nuclear weapons, raised taxes, made deals with congressional Democrats, sought compromises and consensus to fix problems, and surrounded himself with moderates as well as Republican hard-liners, Hagel noted. None of that is characterized by the current GOP leadership, he said. In his eyes, the rise of the Tea Party and the influx of new GOP lawmakers in Congress have driven the party away from common sense and consensus-based solutions.

"Reagan wouldn't identify with this party. There's a streak of intolerance in the Republican Party today that scares people. Intolerance is a very dangerous thing in a society because it always leads to a tragic ending," he said. "Ronald Reagan was never driven by ideology. He was a conservative but he was a practical conservative. He wanted limited government but he used government and he used it many times. And he would work with the other party."

The situation today is similar to where the GOP found itself in the early 1950s, when there was a battle for the direction of the party over the party's identity, Hagel said. Dwight Eisenhower and his moderate allies won that fight, diminishing the influence of extremists like Joe McCarthy, Hagel said.

But today, the extremists are winning.

"Now the Republican Party is in the hands of the right, I would say the extreme right, more than ever before," said Hagel. "You've got a Republican Party that is having difficulty facing up to the fact that if you look at what happened during the first 8 years of the century, it was under Republican direction."

George W. Bush started two wars while cutting taxes, added an unfunded prescription drug mandate, and ran up the deficit, but today's GOP leaders can't reconcile that history with their agenda today, Hagel noted.

"The Republican Party is dealing with this schizophrenia. It was the Republican leadership that got us into this mess," he said. "If Nixon or Eisenhower were alive today, they would be run out of the party."

Hagel decried the departure of the World War II generation, including figures like Ted Stevens, Bob Dole, and now Richard Lugar, and along with them the leadership provided by GOP senators who put national interests above party politics.

"They made it work because their obligation and responsibility was to a higher cause than their party. They were all partisan but they all knew their higher responsibility was to move this country forward and resolve issues through compromise and consensus. We've lost that glue in the Congress."

When moderate Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) resigned his leadership post in the Senate last year, that was a clear indication that the party had no room left for internal dissent, according to Hagel.

"How many times has that happened, to walk away from a leadership position so he would have more flexibility to find consensus and solve real-life issues," Hagel said. "There has been a litmus test, purity factor that has been applied over the years, I saw it in the Senate myself."

Hagel said that the GOP's swing to the extreme right is a response to overall unhappiness throughout the country with the state of the economy, Congress, and politics in general. He predicted that after the voters see that far-right politics don't work, the pendulum will swing back toward moderation.

"We have to go through this. There aren't any shortcuts. The Tea Party of the coffee party or the donut party or something was going to come out of this, it was very predictable," he said. "We're going to have to play that out."

Meanwhile, the dynamic of a GOP controlled by the extreme right is having an effect on the likely GOP nominee, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

"Whether it's Mitt Romney or anybody seeking office, you are captive to the positions of the party to some extent," Hagel said. "What latitude Romney has to shape the party as we go into the election is somewhat limited because of the primary he's had to run."

How Romney positions himself in the run up to the election and whether that results in a win or a loss will have a huge effect on the direction of the Republican Party for years to come, he said. He also urged Romney to provide more details on his plans to fix the country's problems.

"You can criticize the president all you want, but what the American people are going to be listening very carefully to is: How are you going to fix them? How will you do things different and better from the incumbent president? That's where the election will be won or lost."

In the end, both parties are to blame for Americans' disaffection with politics and government and more Americans are turning away from Democrats and Republicans as a result, Hagel said.

"It's evolved into a paralysis," he said. "I think it's the most serious governance crisis we've seen in this country in a long time. You may not like government, but it has to work."

JUNKO KIMURA/AFP/Getty Images