Michael Posner, assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights, and labor, discusses the challenges of balancing U.S. security interests with support for democracy in Bahrain and other Arab Spring countries. Bahrain is home to the U.S. 5th Fleet and is an ally that serves as a bulwark against Iran in the Persian Gulf. The Sunni kingdom has cracked down on the mostly
Shiite pro-democracy protests that erupted last February. Human-rights concerns prompted the Obama administration to delay the original $53 million arms package announced last October. Edited excerpts from Posner’s interview follow.
NJ Your trip to Bahrain is your fifth in the last year and a half. What’s the way forward there?
POSNER The government has declared its desire to hold a political dialogue or negotiation. It has not gone as far or as fast as we would like to see or, frankly, they would like to see. Instead of having one major dialogue, I think there’s a way to talk about different issues that matter to people: the composition of the police, or education policy; access to health or jobs. We should explore ways to lower the temperature on the street, where you have almost daily demonstrations, often kids—protesters—throwing Molotov cocktails and projectiles at the police. And police using excessive force, lots of tear gas.
NJ Resuming the sale of military equipment in May sparked some protests.
POSNER We were very clear in saying we were making those decisions on the basis of our national-security interests. We weren’t extending military cooperation because human-rights issues had been dealt with successfully. In fact, we were doing it in spite of accountability issues; the ongoing trials of people for peaceful protests; police use of excessive force. Those are the things
that we’re raising.
NJ Do you see the decision as a setback to the reform message?
POSNER There were people in the human-rights community here and in Bahrain who were upset because we extended military cooperation for some items. There were people in the government who were upset because of what we said and because some of the holds were not lifted. I think we’re in the right place, actually.
NJ What’s it been like to coordinate these policies with the military and others focused on national-security interests?
POSNER Between people here at State and the White House, and both the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Central Command, we’ve been constantly in discussion. The society is very polarized now, which creates instability. That’s not good for Bahrain, and that’s not good for our security relationship. Everybody is thinking about that as an element of what we’ve got to pay attention to. It’s not just how many ships sit in the port, or what the 5th Fleet is doing in military terms—it’s where they’re based, and what is the future for Bahrain as a more integrated and stable society.
NJ How is the process going in Tunisia and Libya?
POSNER Tunisia is the furthest advanced in terms of beginning a law and constitutional process that gives [civil society] a strong foundation. Still a ways to go, but there’s a pathway forward. I was in Libya a few weeks ago. They were coming out of 42 years of complete breakdown of every institution. A lot of things you’d need almost to start from scratch or to undo bad things. But the interim government is quite open to doing all that. Their own civil society is really trying to learn and play a role. So that’s all positive.
NJ Just before the Arab Spring protests spread in full force, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last January warned from Qatar that the region’s foundations will be “sinking into the sand” if governments don’t respect their people’s reform aspirations. Will we see more democracy and human rights in the Gulf?
POSNER These things happen. Earlier this month was the 35th anniversary of this bureau. Some people from the early years were reminiscing about what it was like to work in Latin America in 1978; others about Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in 1980s. The world is moving in a direction where there’s a greater demand for free speech, free association, for democratic freedoms. I think there’s no country in the world at this point that’s immune from that.
This article appears in the June 23, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.