Bahrain Crisis: Is U.S. Military Assistance Hindering Democracy?
The Obama administrationlaunched an investigation last week into the possibility that U.S. arms and training money were used by Bahraini security forces in violent crackdowns on protesters. The outcome of that probe is not yet known, but the Bahrain situation is stirring up uncomfortable questions about the effectiveness of military aid and to what extent U.S. assistance undermines emerging democracies, said Marine Corps Lt. Col. Christopher L. Naler, a federal executive fellow at The Brookings Institution, in Washington, D.C.
Naler, who was a battalion commander in Afghanistan's Helmand Province in 2009 and 2010, is now researching the role of the U.S. military in budding democracies. America prides itself as the guardian of democracy, and yet current events in Bahrain suggest that U.S. aid may in fact be an obstacle to democracy and could be directly contributing to the human rights crisis, Naler said March 16 during a panel discussion at Brookings.
State Department investigators are digging into the last four years of U.S. aid to Bahrain and will seek to determine whether any of the money provided to train that nation’s security forces was used by the kingdom’s Sunni special security forces to put down Shiite-led protests. “This goes to the integrity of the aid,” Naler said.
His own research revealed some troubling numbers. Between 2006 and 2011, annual U.S. assistance to Bahrain ranged from $5 million to $18 million. And even though the U.S. government can choose to allocate the aid to non-military programs, in this case it earmarked every penny to the security sector, Naler said. “This is one that caught me by surprise.”
No funding whatsoever was assigned to democracy or human-rights programs, which is startling considering that Bahrain’s regime had a history of mistreating citizens, Naler said. “It doesn’t take an economics, a financial or a political science degree to figure out. If you’ve got a country that has had human-rights violations, that’s been under investigation, and that is an emerging struggling democracy, why wouldn’t you put some money into democratic and human rights programs?” he asked.
“From a carrot-and-stick perspective, this doesn’t make sense to me,” said Naler. If U.S. diplomats knew there were problems, why didn’t they advise Washington against pouring all the aid money into security forces? This a serious dilemma for U.S. policy makers, Naler said. “How do you use foreign assistance? Do you apply it to a problem and hope that it will heal the problem, or do you reward” bad behavior?
The situation in Bahrain is all themore sensitive for the U.S. military as the tiny island nation is home to the Navy's 5th Fleet.