U.S. Arms Sales to Bahrain: 4 Questions for the Obama Administration

January 30, 2012

Bahraini anti-government protesters in Zinj Village, west of Manama, run for cover from tear gas on Dec. 23, 2011. ©AFP/Getty Images

As I wrote on Saturday, the Obama Administration has authorized a new U.S. arms sale to the Bahraini monarchy.  This comes just months after a Congressional and public outcry that led the administration to suspend a prior $53 million arms sale to Bahrain.

Members of Congress, journalists, and Amnesty International were all outraged over the last proposed arms sale.  That’s because Bahraini protesters continue to be tear gassed, beaten, and even killed while exercising their human rights of free speech and association – rights that include the freedom to criticize one’s government.

Regarding this new arms sale, here are the top four questions that the Obama administration must answer immediately:

1.  Why was the arms sale kept secret from the public?

Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy leaked the news of the arms sale on Friday.  He also reported that U.S. arms sales under $1 million don’t have to be publicly disclosed.  So the Obama administration didn’t publicly mention it.  But why?  At a time when the Bahraini government continues to crack down on protesters, why did the Obama administration keep the contents of this arms sale — or multiple arms sales — secret?

2.  What is in the arms sale?

U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said that the arms sale “includes spare parts,” arms for Bahrain’s “external defense”, and that “none of these items can be used against protesters.”  But the last time the U.S. State Department said that arms were being sold to Bahrain for “external defense” – the arms package contained humvees.  This came after the Bahraini government had already used tanks to surround a hospital where wounded protestors had been treated.  The public needs to know what the Obama administration is selling to Bahrain.  Ammunition?  Replacement parts for ships?  Vehicles to transport soldiers?  Landing gear for cargo planes?  Tanks?

3. How many secret arms sales are there?

In his above mentioned piece, Rogin implied that the Obama administration could hypothetically turn the suspended $53 million arms sale into 53 or more separate arms sales under $1 million each — and that none of them would have to be reported.  Is that what is happening?  How many unreported U.S. arms sales to Bahrain are happening now — or are slated to happen in the future?

4.  How does this secret arms sale square with the President’s State of the Union address?

In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama referred to the “wave of change” in the Middle East. He also described what U.S. foreign policy would be: “We will stand against violence and intimidation. We will stand for the rights and dignity of all human beings –- men and women; Christians, Muslims and Jews.”

It remains to be seen what is in this latest arms sale (or sales) to Bahrain.  But at a time when Bahrainis are experiencing human rights violations at home, it doesn’t look good to be handing their government additional military equipment.

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