Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Finding a Positive-Sum Solution: The Bahraini Case

Bahrain is a unique case of the Arab Revolt of 2011, but it is also an example of the common tactic of partisan pleading that the danger of disaster justifies submitting to oppression that happens to reserve privilege for the few at the expense of the many. Never did a greedy politician put forth a more suspect claim than that.

It is difficult to assess the swirling claims and counterclaims about Bahraini politics, but a few things seem clear:

  1. the regime is dominated by a group (Sunni and rich) that is not representative of the majority of the population (Shi’a and relatively poor);
  2. the regime was using the excuse of the general conflict between the West and activist Islam as an opportunity to intensify political oppression
  3. the regime’s initial reaction to peaceful protest was criminal violence
  4. the protesters represent a range of opinions
  5. regime response is radicalizing that range of opinions.

The above set of observations, albeit sparse, suggests that the following policy might be wise:
fundamental regime compromise to create a truly participatory democracy, punishment of security officials guilty of violence against peaceful protesters, and the grounding of civil liberties in legal granite.

Arguments about whether the protest is being managed or is opening the door to Iranian intervention are probably more dangerous than useful unless carefully couched in the context laid out above (with, one hopes, a bit more detail). Surely the protests are to some extent being managed; in fact, the democratic political process is all about managing political activity. And I have yet to find a society in which some political factions do not attempt to gain unfair partisan advantage, and most societies seem to have more than their share of outright criminals happy to oppress and kill for that partisan advantage. I also have yet to hear a convincing argument that such facts justify oppression. Surely every political faction in Bahrain is now attempting to manage the protests. So to announce in solemn tones that X is trying to “manage” the protests is little more than scare tactics to obstruct thinking.

Example of Protest Coordination
Within the Saudi kingdom, thousands of emails and Facebook messages have encouraged Saudi Sunni Muslims to join the planned demonstrations across the "conservative" and highly corrupt kingdom. They suggest – and this idea is clearly co-ordinated – that during confrontations with armed police or the army next Friday, Saudi women should be placed among the front ranks of the protesters to dissuade the Saudi security forces from opening fire.--Robert Fisk, "Saudis Mobilize Thousands of Troops to Quell Growing Revolt"

It is almost never true in politics that “it’s them or us.” Zero-sum arguments are classic excuses to justify oppression, whether made by conservative Sunni dictators, Iranian Mullahs, right-wing Israeli expansionists, or American neo-cons. “Apres-moi le deluge” may be an accurate prediction, but it is the Louis the Fifteenths , the Mubaraks, the Netanyahus who create the zero-sum conditions that pave the way for “le deluge.”

Similarly, Iran obviously has its eye on Shi’i Bahraini society. Are there expansionist elements in the IRGC convinced by their war of resistance against Saddam that Allah is on their side and that they can thus win any conflict? Are there Iranians indignant at Bahraini regime discrimination against fellow Shi’a? Are there unemotional, cautious national security decision-makers in Iran who calculate logically that enhanced Iranian influence over Bahraini society would strengthen Iran’s national security and lead to a more just regional balance of power? Without a doubt.

None of that, however, justifies oppressing, marginalizing, and alienating whole social groups regardless of their behavior. In today’s world, oppression is easy, but effective, long-term oppression is hard. Resistance is getting both easier and more dangerous. Perhaps there is a true believer IRGC general ready to invade who can only be countered by a display of power; perhaps there is a national security thinker who can be persuaded by an offer that addresses Iran's legitimate national security concerns. Perhaps some Shi'a believe, like some Protestant Fundamentalists, that the "End of Days" is imminent; perhaps some Shi'a are more interested in having the same civil liberties that Americans have traditionally bragged about. Politics is about finding opportunities, and the door to such opportunities is opened by the key of a positive-sum attitude. Zero-sum policies will ensure precisely the chaos such policies claim to prevent.

That much is common sense. Now, someone with Bahraini expertise please lay out for me a positive-sum political path forward.

Bahraini Futures:

Crackdown on Democracy 

A new Sunni coalition called the National Unity Assembly raises fears of sectarianism.


HURRIYYA said...

The fair that Bahrain protest opens way to Iranian influence is not a far fetched argument. it is a genuine fair going by Iran's ambition of expansionism and regional power.

William deB. Mills said...

I agree that the fear of protests opening the door to Iranian influence is legitimate, as is the fear that it will lead to a Saudi invasion followed by both a vicious clampdown in Bahrain as well as a new wave of repression in Saudi Arabia, with resultant opening of the door to Israeli influence. All this would be likely to raise social tensions and lead to a much more violent confrontation between the people and the regime in the future.

Both sets of fears are legitimate. I think the question is, "How best to avoid these two extremes?"

Chris said...

I actually find it highly unlikely that Iran will invade Bahrain or that anyone in Iran has expansionist aims there. Iranian influence is another story. Bringing weapons in, financial support etc.

As for Saudi, it certainly values the Bahrain leaders (or,rather, their religion) but with the unrest in Saudi now, would the Kingdom be up for helping Bahrain's regime militarily? I don't know.

Bahrain seems to be a unique case, as you say, but mostly because of the foreign interests involved. The US certainly does not want to see the fall of the regime as it allows the island to be home of one of our biggest naval fleets. Saudi doesn't want the regime to fall either. Iran, on the other hand, probably does. But with the fall of Mubarak leading to a more resistance-based Egyptian government (probably), with Iraq leaning towards Iran, with the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanese politics...

It seems as though Iran would be focused to the West.

End unorganized rant,