This first paragraph of this post was updated on 2012-Jan-31 to add new information.
A US$53 million arms sale, put on hold in November pending an investigation by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry into Bahraini security forces’ human rights violations, is being pushed forward by the Obama Administration in defiance of Congressional opposition and criticism from human rights observers. In the meantime, a new arms sale is going through, which the US State Department claims has nothing to do with the original one. The Cable reports that the new deal was going to be done “without any formal notification to the public,” and that the State Department told Congress that it has “gone above and beyond what is legally or customarily required” to address critics’ human rights complaints.
At the same time, the Kingdom of Bahrain is denying entry to observers from the US-based Physicians for Human Rights and Human Rights First organizations, which have been sharply critical of how security forces and the judiciary have behaved towards demonstrators.
I think the logic behind the Obama Administration's approach works (in theory) as follows: a trickle of aid coming at the same time the government is reportedly taking investigators' reports into consideration will compel the royal family to do more to democratize the country in exchange for more aid.
If the royal family changes its mind about those observers, I'll start entertaining more optimistic thoughts about the efficacy of this "behind the scenes diplomacy." Why? Because if they were being let it, it would demonstrate that the US is actually accomplishing a conditional aid policy that is pushing the government to fully implement the recommendations in the Commission's report. I often turn to the concept of "uncivil society" to discuss entrenched interests in countries experiencing democratic protests, and it's clear that the US is going to have to offer tastier carrots, and brandish much heavier sticks, if it is truly committed to democratization in Bahrain (and Egypt).
Granted, if these observers' entry became permissible (and it's not an impossibility), it could just as easily be read as a decision by the government to chaperone these people around to mute further criticism - something their PR firms back in the US have already been working very hard at (the Kingdom of Bahrain has retained the US lobbying group Qorvis for US$40,000 a month since 2010, with a particular emphasis on English-language media management).
Nothing signals "our priorities" like using a legal backdoor to funnel arms to a key Arab ally in the face of human rights criticism, and this holds true along the coastlines of both American littorals, the Mediterranean and the Gulf. How we will respond to growing pressure on NGOs in Egypt will address the dichotomies facing Egyptians willing to work with Western NGO. The resumption of arms sales to Bahrain, alongside the lockout of these groups, offers a much more concrete lesson of what Bahrainis can expect in the coming months.
At least when Moscow decides to send a message about a Mideast naval base, it sends that message clearly.