The Council on Foreign Relations, one of the most respected international affairs organizations in the United States, now finds itself in the grip of an exceptionally embarrassing scandal. Ed Husain, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, recently generated an uproar among Middle East specialists with a bizarre series of tweets from a brief visit to Bahrain, in which he warmly supported the government while harshly condemning the opposition as stooges of Iran.
Displaying an astounding blindness to the aggressive violence and sectarian rhetoric of the government and its supporters, Husain painted the opposition as uniformly violent, sectarian Iranian agents. There is no evidence of this, as the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry noted in a report last year. Nonetheless, Husain accused the mainstream Shia opposition group Al-Wefaq of running a campaign of “intimidation” against other Shia. But all the evidence suggests that Al-Wefaq has been steadily losing support because of its moderation and refusal to call for the dissolution of the monarchy.
Husain promotes a ridiculous binary: “Bottom line on Bahrain: support the al-Khalifah monarchy with more reforms, or create a pro-Iran colony through [Shia cleric] Isa Qasim. Choose.” As evidence, he cites an extremely dubious story in the pro-Saudi and anti-Shia Kuwaiti paper Al-Seyassa claiming that hundreds of Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese Shia agents have been assembled in Bahrain by the opposition to lead a terrorist campaign.
In reality, the mainstream Bahraini opposition appears to have been trying to keep Iran at arm’s length because it realizes that Bahrain—including its Shia population—is inextricably tied into the Arab Gulf political, social and economic system.
Husain explains his indefensibly uncritical embrace of the monarchy and its paranoid and unfounded rhetoric about the opposition by claiming, “There is a cold war raging across the Middle East between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” and “Bahrain [is] in the eye of the storm.”
The problem for Husain—and, by extension, the Council on Foreign Relations—is that while condemning the Bahraini opposition in the name of combating largely imaginary “Iranian influence,” Husain has simultaneously been among the strongest cheerleaders for Iran’s closest ally in the region: the Syrian dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad. The Assad-Tehran axis is not a subject of speculation, debate or paranoid rhetoric. It’s an established fact, and by far the most important feature of any “cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” if one views Middle Eastern strategic realities through that lens.
Indeed, Husain has acknowledged that “Assad is an Iranian stooge” but insists that he is popular among the majority of Syrians (based on totally debunked, absurd “polling data”), good for Western and Israeli security, and his continued rule “the least worst option” in Syria. His attitude is distilled in the amazing inversion of reality in his claim that “Assad’s supporters are just as brutal and vicious as the opposition.” This outrageously suggests the opposition rather than the government is the primary source and gold standard of the horrifying violence that has taken at least 9,000 Syrian lives over the past year.
The Council on Foreign Relations is employing a “Middle East specialist” who enthusiastically supports the minority Sunni ruling family of Bahrain because he uncritically accepts undocumented and dubious accusations that the members of the mainstream opposition are Iranian agents. And at the same time, he ardently defends what actually is a brutal “pro-Iran colony” run by the minority Alawite regime of Assad in Syria. So all of his rhetoric about “cold war” and “Iranian colonies” is so much disingenuous balderdash.
It seems that any sectarian minority government brutally suppressing a majority struggling for its freedom is irresistible catnip for Husain.
Husain, a British Muslim of Bangladeshi origin, launched his career by claiming to have been “an Islamist” and, at times, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. But at most he may have once been associated with a far different group, Hizb ut Tahrir. Though Hizb ut Tahrir denies he was ever a member, he may well have once been a street-level leaflet-distributer for them.
Much of his “Islamist” past seems at best highly exaggerated, if not fabricated, for shameless self-promotion. According to his own memoir, The Islamist, he developed a disturbing relationship with the Syrian secret police, which included identifying possible British Hizb members. His evident appreciation of multicultural polities held together by an atmosphere of fear and intimidation is also reflected in his advocacy that the British government systematically spy on all British Muslims, whether or not they are suspected of any wrongdoing.
The Council on Foreign Relations must act quickly to save itself from the ravages of a loose cannon wildly careening around the decks, repeatedly smashing into the hull of its own reputation. Whatever compelled them to hire such a transparent fraud, and to compound the insult by entitling his blog “The Arab Street,” they must at last recognize that their disastrous mistake needs to be corrected forthwith.