The Obama administration, already preoccupied with the unpleasant developments in Syria and Egypt, may soon be facing a new crisis in the small Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain. If violence in that country continues to grow, it will have a more immediate and significant impact on Washington’s role in the region. Bahrain is the home port for the U.S. fifth fleet, and is, therefore, the linchpin of the U.S. naval presence in that part of the world and a crucial component of Washington’s power-projection capabilities. It would not be easy to replace that facility—and impossible to do so quickly. Consequently, U.S. policy makers have been more than just interested spectators to events in Bahrain.
There is little doubt that Bahrain’s political environment is increasingly volatile. The country is on the front lines of the Sunni-Shiite struggle for dominance in the Middle East. The Sunni monarchy of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa rules a population that is nearly 70 percent Shiite, and stark discrimination against the latter is evident in nearly every aspect of life. Tehran openly backs Shiite factions in Bahrain, while Saudi Arabia is the king’s primary patron. When massive anti-regime demonstrations erupted in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, in early 2011, government security forces responded harshly, including with volleys of live ammunition, killing several dozen demonstrators. Despite that crackdown, though, insurgents might well have toppled the monarchy if Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies had not intervened with 2,000 troops in March 2011.
The violence has continuously simmered since then, punctuated by periodic surges. As of February 2013, more than 100 people had died in police crackdowns on anti-regime demonstrations and retaliatory attacks by insurgents. The government also has imprisoned hundreds of other political opponents. Those numbers might not seem all that large, but Bahrain’s population is barely 1.2 million. Earlier this month, a bomb explosion killed a police officer in the city of Sitra, and a similar attack seriously injured three officers in the city of Janabiya. The BBC reports that “youths armed with petrol bombs attack police on an almost nightly basis in villages and towns around the capital.”
Frederic Wehrey, a scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, notes in his important study on Bahrain that “the United States finds itself in the undesirable position of maintaining close ties with a repressive regime that has skillfully avoided meaningful reforms… .”
As I discuss here, the deteriorating situation in Bahrain creates major headaches for the Obama administration. Muslim audiences have already noted the apparent double standard between Washington’s vehement condemnation of brutal, undemocratic behavior in such countries as Iran, Syria, and Gaddafi’s Libya—all adversaries of the United States–and the solicitous U.S. treatment of Bahrain’s repressive regime. And that was before the Obama administration’s mild reaction to the military coup in Egypt produced additional charges of hypocrisy. The burgeoning tensions in Bahrain may soon compel U.S. officials to decide whether their professed commitment to democracy and human rights in the Middle East is a serious policy goal or merely diplomatic posturing. If it’s the former, it may mean losing a keystone military presence in the region.