Folks who claim that it doesn't matter who we elect to represent us in the House of Representatives or how we press them once they get there should be compelled to confront a new piece of evidence: a report from Bahrain of a recent meeting between a US Congressional delegation and representatives of Wefaq, the largest political party in Bahrain. The report illustrates a key political fact about the world in which we live: some of the most progressive Congressional districts in the country, districts that won't elect a Republican unless the Democratic incumbent is caught red-handed in a major crime the week before the election, are represented by people who, when the curtains of big media are drawn, oppose the basic human rights that most Americans take for granted.
People in these Congressional districts could, if they wished, be represented in the House by people who are consistent supporters of human rights. The key obstacle to this development isn't ideology or corporate power per se. It's the lack of effective channels for communicating to voters what their representatives in the House are doing on foreign policy issues. This lack is, of course, a symptom of corporate domination of the media. But the media isn't totally under the control of corporations, and thanks to the Internet, we can now communicate with each other for free. So, this problem could be solved through effective organization, and every progressive district in the country could be represented in the House by people who are consistent supporters of human rights.
Democrat Lynn Woolsey represents California's 6th Congressional district. The Cook Partisan Voting Index (PVI) of this district is D+23. Judged by the vote in presidential elections, the district is 23 points more Democratic than the country as a whole. It's going to be a long time before a Republican gets elected there.
Donald Payne represents New Jersey's 10th Congressional district. The Cook PVI of this district is D+33. Pigs will fly before a Republican gets elected there.
Woolsey and Payne went to Bahrain and had a meeting with representatives of the country's largest political party, which represents the longstanding efforts of the disenfranchised Shia majority to achieve meaningful political representation by political and nonviolent means. The democratic uprising of the majority has been brutally suppressed; dialogue with Wefaq represents the best hope of bringing the majority into a political process that creates a peaceful and orderly transition to democratic rule.
Together with four other opposition parties, Wefaq has recently called for Bahrain to become a constitutional monarchy, like Britain, instead of the autocratic monarchy that it is today.
What Woolsey and Payne did in this meeting should shock the conscience of anyone who thinks that the United States should promote respect for human rights in countries where it has significant influence. Woolsey and Payne used their meeting to advocate a position to the right of the Obama administration and the State Department. They used their meeting to say that expecting US policy to support democracy in Bahrain is foolish because the United States is friends with the Bahraini dictatorship. Woolsey and Payne didn't use their meeting to represent the values and interests of the majority of their constituents. They represented some other interest.
According to the report, Woolsey and Payne opened the meeting, “by saying that Bahrain is an important strategic ally to US which is running short of friends in the region, and that the fifth fleet presence in Bahrain is vital to US which might not have any other alternative in the region.”
Imagine that, in 1963, a group of black people in the United States tried to press their campaign for civil rights by meeting with liberal European parliamentarians who were believed to support human rights. And imagine that the European parliamentarians opened the meeting by stressing the fact that the United States was an important strategic ally of Europe, and that the presence of US troops in Europe was vital to defending Europe from the Soviet Union. What message would the European parliamentarians have communicated by opening the meeting in this way?
Woolsey and Payne communicated two messages: first, don't expect any help from us, because we are best buddies with your oppressor. And, second, we think you're stupid. Because every politically active person in Bahrain already knows that the United States is best buddies with the Bahrain regime; that's why they're meeting with US officials, rather than officials from Costa Rica.
In addition, the notion that the United States is unable to support democracy in Bahrain because of the presence of the Fifth Fleet is preposterous, as I noted last week. It's almost certain that we wouldn't lose the base merely as a result of supporting democracy, and even if we did lose the base, far from being “vital,” it is merely a convenience, as The New York Times noted in February: The Times reported that the US naval base in Bahrain was “mainly a matter of convenience rather than necessity to the United States Navy,” noting that the Navy “has only 2,300 personnel there working in the comfort of an isolated compound, and making relatively little use of local port facilities for its major warships, which stay mainly at sea and at other anchorages.”
Furthermore, according to the Wefaq report of the meeting, “Our message has been consistent and clear … we would like the fifth fleet to stay.” So, what is left of the base excuse?
And what did Woolsey and Payne communicate by saying that the United States “is running short of friends in the region”? Are North American Treaty Organization (NATO) ally Turkey and the United States no longer “friends”? Are the United States and Egypt no longer “friends”? Are the United States and Tunisia no longer “friends”? What standard of “friendship” are Woolsey and Payne promoting? Strict obedience? Even George W. Bush's secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, has a more progressive line on this issue. In an op-ed in The Washington Post in February following the fall of Mubarak, Rice wrote:
We cannot determine the foreign policy preferences of Egypt's next government. But we can influence them through our ties to the military, links to civil society, and a promise of economic assistance and free trade to help improve the lot of the Egyptian people.
The most important step now is to express confidence in the future of a democratic Egypt….
The fall of communism unleashed patriots who had long regarded the United States as a “beacon of freedom.” Our history with the peoples of the Middle East is very different. Still, the United States should support the forces of democracy, not because they will be friendlier to us but because they will be friendlier to their own people.
Democratic governments, including our closest allies, do not always agree with us. Yet they share our most fundamental belief – that people must be governed by consent. It is as true today as it was when I said in 2005 that the fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty. We have only one choice: to trust that in the long arc of history those shared beliefs will matter more than the immediate disruptions that lie ahead and that, ultimately, our interests and ideals will be well served.
Is it too much to ask that Woolsey and Payne be as enlightened on this issue as Rice?
Currently, they are not. According to the Wefaq report, “Instead of talking about reconciliation and dialogue between the opposition and the government which was mentioned by President Obama in his last speech, they showed full support to Bahrain government steps. They stressed on side issues and found … excuses for not supporting democracy in Bahrain…. They concluded their speech by saying that they are impressed by Bahrain's king personality and find him the nicest king.”
Would this fly at a public meeting in Marin County, across the bridge from San Francisco? How about in Newark? I don't think so.
Here's a concrete ask for Woolsey and Payne's constituents: Get your representative on board Jim McGovern's resolution in opposition to the proposed arms sale to Bahrain, a resolution supported by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Let's give the last word to Wefaq:
“Although we are quite disappointed by this meeting, we are still hopeful that US [will] take the right side of history and win the hearts of Bahraini people by supporting their legitimate and basic demands. It is an opportunity to US to give an example of success in Bahrain of how progressive and developed their strategic allies can be, and to correct the evolving image of US having double standards in dealing with the Arab spring and supporting dictatorship in the region. “