At a White House ceremony today, the Israelis and Emiratis will officially normalize diplomatic relations. Bahrain, the latest "prospect" to sign on to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s diplomatic road-show, is sending some officials to the party. When both deals are sealed, Abu Dhabi and Manama will be the third and fourth Arab countries to officially recognize Israel. Only don’t be too impressed.
Bahrain is basically a stationary Saudi aircraft carrier floating in the Persian Gulf. Riyadh’s princely landlords run it like rentier-racketeers: subletting sections to the infidel American Navy’s Fifth Fleet (whose website boasts of its "147 tenant [sub]commands"). Cramped below Bahrain’s decks – fittingly, in the world’s sixth-most densely-populated country – are its majority of second-class Shia citizens, ordered around from above by their Saudi-bribed Sunni betters. Down in the boiler room, one supposes, are its fully 45 percent of non-national (mostly South Asian), residents – who do most of the menial labor and often smacked-around for their troubles.
It’s a peculiar place from which to launch phase two of first-son-in-law Jared Kushner’s regional tranquility initiative. Yet now Americans are supposed to believe that President Donald Trump deserves a Nobel Peace Prize based upon the combined weight of this past week’s deal and a similar agreement brokered with the UAE last month. Fox News host Laura Ingraham says "It’s obvious that Trump should get" one. Sorry, Laura: That’s some Bahraini bunk!
The election season timing of these deals is hardly coincidental: Pompeo’s road show is less about scoring regional "peace" than partisan points. The official joint U.S.-Israeli-Bahraini statement may have hailed an "historic breakthrough to further peace in the Middle East," but those pesky Palestinians were barely mentioned anywhere.
The latter’s leadership called the latest deal "another stab in the back of the Palestinian cause…people and their rights." With no real change to the dehumanizing facts on the Occupied Territories’ ground, and Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu unwilling to even take outright illegal-annexation off the permanent table, it’s hard to argue with the Palestinian perspective. The Donald disagreed, naturally, claiming – without a shred of evidence or basic logic – that these deals will put "the Palestinians in a very good position."
The twin normalization agreements Trump quickly claimed credit for represent, for the president, nothing short of "a previously unthinkable regional transformation." As for the discrete Bahrain-deal, it was "really something very special – very, very special."
That seems a lot of fanfare and (typically Trumpian) hyperbole for what’s ultimately mundane: Bahrain is a Saudi-client state the size of D.C.’s metro area with a Bronx-sized population. It’s been bullied into diplomatic normalization with a nuclear-armed Israeli regional superpower (which counts Uncle Sam as its big brother). As for the claim that the UAE and Bahrain deals represent some seminal sea-change in Arab attitudes towards Israel, let’s remember that neither Gulf States’ peoples chose this.
Made in Riyadh
As a human rights lawyer from the country’s Shia majority reminded BBC listeners, "The Bahraini people are not a free people; Bahrain is not a free country." In fact, she noted that even its Arab citizens have "time and time again" been "prosecuted, tortured, imprisoned, for expressing their opinions – whether on Twitter or otherwise." Emiratis and Bahrainis both live in medieval monarchies now masquerading as modern because they’ve got smartphones and satellite TV.
Suspiciously, the latest announcement came just two weeks after Bahrain originally rejected Pompeo’s pleas – King Hamad having told the U.S. secretary of state that his little kingdom was just too committed to the creation of a Palestinian state, according Manama’s state media. The explanation for the turnabout is surely simple: Bahrain’s Sunni royals do whatever is cooked up for them in Riyadh. If Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin-Salman says to normalize with Israel, his Bahraini vassals ask – how fast? (Though Riyadh’s not yet ready to take that same plunge.) Ultimately, the tiny archipelago’s Al-Khalifa family owes their power and position to their Al-Saud neighbors.
Manama counts on Riyadh’s cash bailouts to prop up the economy and its troops to shield the Al-Khalifas from their own restive Shia subjects. Back in 2011, both Saudi and Emirati troops rolled across the 15-mile causeway linking Bahrain to Saudi Arabia, in an invasion-crackdown that saved the local royals from a local Arab Spring uprising. The very existence of this Wahhabi-highway-gangplank has a disciplinary effect on Al Khalifa-policymaking. As Khalil Jahshan, executive director at the Arab Center of Washington, summed up the latest agreement: “It is a purely Saudi decision."
Things We Wonder, But Do Not Ask
America’s political and media mainstream are now so inside themselves, and their US&Israel-against-the-world narrative, that uncomfortable questions are rarely raised. In fact, one can spend a lifetime perusing polite publications without some salient ones ever occurring to her:
- Why is it that Israel, self-styled and U.S.-touted as "the only democracy in the Middle East,” merely makes peace or maintains official relations with a rogue’s gallery of regional royals (in Jordan, Bahrain, UAE), despots (Azerbaijan), and military-coup-artists (Egypt)?
- Perhaps because the utter intransigence of Israel’s international-law violating armed occupation and ethno-religious settlement of Palestinian territories is so obscene that no Arab or Muslim state could do such a deal if its people had any actual say.
- Why does the ostensibly free press of our purportedly free republic rarely mention that Washington and Tel Aviv’s only mutual friends on Mideast social media are archaic kings, princes, and emirs, or tyrannical generals who would be king (like Egypt’s al-Sisi: Trump’s "favorite dictator")?
- Maybe since the dirty (not-so) secret is that our "indispensable nation’s" most indispensable Mideast partners have always been a bit monstrous. It’s never much bothered Washington that Egypt’s leader took power in an undemocratic coup and then had his troops gun-down several hundred unarmed protesters. Sisi remains the number two recipient of US military aid (after Israel, incidentally). And both sides of America’s ruling duopoly-coin can live with a Saudi state that occasionally beheads women for "witchcraft and sorcery," plus puts on mass executions of its minority-Shia clerics and dissidents with some regularity.
- Why would a society supposedly so free, open, and stridently secular (yet expressly Jewish) as Israel seek settlements with states that promote the most intolerant brands of – and often most anti-Semitic – Islamism both at home and abroad?
- Could be that Tel Aviv isn’t actually any of those things and that both Israeli and Saudi cynicism knows no bounds. After all, Riyadh is ground zero for the puritanical state-Wahhabism that’s inspired or influenced Salafi-jihadis from Morocco to Malaysia for decades now. The Saudis and Emiratis have sometimes actively backed Al Qaeda’s Syria-franchise, and tacitly or indirectly fueled the Islamic State (ISIS). Bahrain, too, has long had a complicated, often conciliatory, relationship with internal and external Sunni jihadists. Counterintuitively, Israel’s isn’t especially different on such matters. Recall that in 2016, its defense minister said that if he had to pick between ISIS and "Iran" on Israel’s borders, he’d “choose ISIS” every time.
No one in America’s media, political, or regional "expert" cesspool of civility-over-candor talks too much about these things. Well, as the old adage goes: don’t ask, if you don’t want to know the answer.
In the end, the latest show on Machiavelli Mike Pompeo’s "peace" tour was a peculiar one: built upon a big game of diplomatic pretend. America’s all-in-for-Israel government pretends it’s an honest broker and ships out a presidential son-in-law pretending to be a diplomat to negotiate the deal. That pact will then be signed by an apartheid Israeli ethnocracy pretending to be a democracy; and a Saudi-American battleship – the USS Bahrain – pretending to be a country.
Finally, Washington doesn’t even pretend to have an opposition. After all, its supposed leader, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer only that “hopefully [the agreement] will be beneficial to the region," and might (no doubt, regrettably) be “good” for Trump, but feared the deal could distract him from dealing with the coronavirus crisis. Scathing as ever, Nancy.
Look, the Bahrain deal is probably just a footnote in the fine-print of the Trump-Kushner "deal of the century" – part of its false promise of peace in the Holy Land. Palestine is but a political pawn, as is Trump’s entire transactional Arab-Israeli diplomacy. Consider his strategy the Bahraini backdoor to nowhere.
Most peculiar of all, America’s peace plan for Palestine unfolds absent Palestinians.
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer, contributing editor at Antiwar.com, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), and director of the soon-to-launch Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, Mother Jones, ScheerPost and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge and Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War. Along with fellow vet Chris "Henri" Henriksen, he co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and on his website for media requests and past publications.
Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen