Seumas Milne Guardian/UK 10 December 2014
Britain’s new military base in
Bahrain will deliver a toxic message
We may have known the outline of the global US kidnapping and torture programme for a few years. What has been published is in fact only a small part of a much bigger picture, including an estimated 100 or more prisoners tortured to death in US detention. Added to the rampant lying, cover-ups and impunity, it’s a story that the champions of America’s “exceptionalism” will find hard to sell around the world.
There is of course nothing exceptional about states that preach human rights and democracy, but practise the opposite when it suits them. For all the senate’s helpful redactions, Britain has been up to its neck in the CIA’s savagery, colluding in kidnapping and torture from Bagram to Guantánamo while dishing out abuses of its own in Iraq and Afghanistan. So you’d hardly think this reminder of the horrors unleashed in the name of the war on terror was the time for Britain to announce its first permanent military base in the Middle East for four decades. The presence of western troops and support for dictatorial Arab regimes were, after all, the original reasons given by al-Qaida for its jihad against the west.
The subsequent invasions, occupations and bombing campaigns led by the US, Britain and others have been endlessly cited by those who resisted them in the Arab and Muslim world, or launched terror attacks in the west. But last week, foreign secretary Phillip Hammond proudly declared that Britain would reverse its withdrawal from “east of Suez” of the late 1960s and open a navy base “for the long term” in the Gulf autocracy of Bahrain.
The official talk is about protecting Britain’s “enduring interests” and the stability of the region. But to those fighting for the right to run their own country, the message could not be clearer. Britain, the former colonial power, and the US, whose 5th Fleet is already based in Bahrain, stand behind the island’s unelected rulers. No wonder there have already been protests against the base.
Bahrainis campaigning for democracy and civil rights, in a state where the majority are Shia and the rulers Sunni, were part of the Arab uprisings in 2011. With US and British support, Saudi Arabia and the UAE crushed the protests by force. Mass arrests, repression and torture followed.
In reality, the British base’s main job won’t be to prop up the Bahraini regime, but to help protect the entire network of dictatorial Gulf governments that sit on top of its vast reserves of oil and gas – and provide a springboard for future interventions across the wider Middle East. British troops never really left the region and have been part of one intervention after another.
The US itself controls an archipelago of military bases across the Gulf: in Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the UAE, as well as Bahrain. And despite Barack Obama’s much-heralded pivot to Asia, they are also clearly there for the long haul. After the US accepted the overthrow of the Egyptian dictator Mubarak three years ago, the Gulf autocrats are looking for extra security, which Britain and France are glad to provide. For the London elite, the Gulf is now as much about arms sales and finance as about oil and gas – and a web of political, commercial and intelligence links that go to the heart of the British establishment.
On a larger scale, the return of western-backed dictatorship in Egypt, the Arab world’s most important country, has helped re-establish the conditions that led to the war on terror in the first place. Obama has traded the CIA’s Bush-era kidnap-and-torture programme for expanded special forces and CIA drone killings, often of people targeted only by their “signatures” – such as being males of military age. And British forces have this week been accused of training and providing intelligence for Kenyan death squads targeting suspected Islamist activists.
But with its new commitment to station troops in Bahrain, we can have no doubt where the British government stands: behind autocracy and “enduring interests”. Just as the refusal to hold previous US governments to account for terror and torture laid the ground for what happened after 9/11, the failure of parliament even to debate the decision to garrison the Gulf is an ominous one. Britain’s new base isn’t in the interests of either the people of Britain, Bahrain or the Middle East as a whole – it’s a danger and affront to us all.