Here's a short op-ed I have up today on The Fresh Outlook, an online newspaper from the UK. Please excuse the British (mis)spellings!
President Obama snatched the headlines last week as he attempted to set the tone for US strategy in a period of fluidity and political change across the Middle East. Pre-empting accusations of the hypocritical nature of US foreign policy, Obama offered this humble reflection on America's position globally: “There will be times when our short term interests do not align perfectly with our long term vision of the region.”
In the speech, Obama covered the whole gambit of challenges facing America in a region where democratic protest movements are teetering on the “stable” authoritarian regimes of yesteryear. One of those challenges was a country that the president has never discussed publicly: the Kingdom of Bahrain.
While couching his comments in a commitment to Bahrain’s security, the president, in principle, stood on the side of reform. On the government of Bahrain’s repressive response to peaceful protest, he warned: “…[M]ass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain's citizens, and will not make legitimate calls for reform go away. The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.”
Indeed, Obama delivered a slap on the wrist of Bahrain’s royal family, the Sunni ruling elite of the small Gulf kingdom with a majority Shiite population. But with Bahraini forces having cleared the Pearl Roundabout of protesters in March, much of the damage by that regime has already been done.
In the last months, government forces have defied intentional law, deliberately targeting medical workers and ambulances associated with opposition groups. 1,000 Bahrainis have been incarcerated, most of them Shiite. All the while, Saudi tanks have been stationed in Bahrain as part of a “State of National Safety”, which in reality has translated into a brutal and arbitrary sectarian crackdown on Shiite communities. The Bahraini rulers have claimed the spectre of Iranian interference, a rather hollow excuse for such grave human rights violations (and an excuse not backed by facts - according to a 2009 survey, the majority of Bahraini Shia reject the notion of a government based on religion a la Iran).
Bahrain is one of those instances where US interests and values have not lined up. With the US' Fifth Fleet docked on Bahrain’s shores – and over 2,200 Americans living off the base – the furthest Obama can go is wagging his finger. This is important real estate. For Washington, having a fleet in the Gulf is a given. Even as the Bahraini government violates its citizens’ basic rights, the long-term sustainability of the US naval base has barely been questioned.
If Bahrain does not end its brutal tactics against democratic activists, what will the US do? Sure, it’s easy to reprimand Syria or Iran for being repressive towards protesters because those countries aren’t exactly on great terms with the US. Passing congressional sanctions against Syria and Iran is standard fare. But it’s much more difficult to convince Bahrain, “a longstanding partner", to heed unwanted advice.
A parallel might be drawn to Egypt’s now deposed President Honsi Mubarak. Despite the significant strategic partnership which Mubarak’s Egypt represented for the US, when the regime went too far the Obama administration decided to support the protesters’ democratic aspirations. It’s a move for which Saudi Arabian leadership has yet to forgive President Obama. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has adopted a softened position on reform in Saudi Arabia - a country conspicuously absent from Obama’s Mideast speech.
As Washington sends high-level State Department officials to convey the urgency of reform to Manama, there is little indication that the Bahraini Sunni ruling elite will pursue a negotiated and just resolution to the current conflict. Many protestors will be standing trial in military, rather than civilian, courts (and at least one such activist appeared in court last week bearing obvious signs of torture). About 30 people have been killed by government forces since February (a huge number in a country of 500,000 Bahrainis, with about the same amount of foreign workers). No efforts to investigate these illegal attacks have been undertaken by the government. With such a track record, it seems likely that the kingdom’s leadership will stick to its sectarian guns rather than commit to a new era of political cooperation with Shiites.
If the Bahraini regime refuses to heed Washington’s advice, will the Obama administration determine that Bahrain’s authoritarian regime is simply the quid-pro-quo for keeping the Fifth Fleet in its cosy home?
As Obama said last week: “We have the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator,” referring to the individual who sparked the Tunisian revolution and, in turn, the Arab Spring. However, if Washington chooses to ignore the dark side of its military presence in Bahrain - and continues both its implicit and overt support for the repressive Bahraini regime - then US values and interests will remain very much out of synch in the post-Tahrir Square Middle East.