Washington’s reaction to the surge of antiregime movements in North Africa and the Middle East has varied markedly. U.S. leaders did not hesitate to back so-called prodemocracy movements in countries that are adversaries of the United States. Both the Obama administration and Congress issued blistering condemnations of the dictatorial regimes in Iran, Libya and Syria for thwarting the democratic aspirations of their people and brutally suppressing peaceful (and many not-so-peaceful) demonstrations. In the case of Libya, the United States and its NATO allies went beyond verbal support for the insurgents to launch air strikes and provide other crucial assistance to help overthrow Muammar el-Qaddafi. A similar course is increasingly likely with respect to Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
The U.S. response to movements that targeted dictatorships friendly to the United States has been quite different. Washington dithered about whether to withdraw its support from clients in such places as Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt. Similar reluctance is evident with respect to the simmering conflict in Bahrain. Charges of U.S. hypocrisy are mounting as the Sunni ruling family intensifies its repression of mostly Shia political opponents. The Bahraini government is fast becoming a major embarrassment and potential geopolitical headache for the United States. That is not a minor consideration, since Bahrain is the home port of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
Bahrain is perfectly situated to be a pawn in the Sunni-Shia struggle for dominance in the Middle East. The Sunni monarchy of the small island nation in the Persian Gulf rules a population that is nearly 70 percent Shiites, and stark discrimination against the latter is evident in nearly every aspect of life. Tehran openly backs Shia factions in Bahrain, while Saudi Arabia is Bahraini king Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa’s primary patron.
When massive antiregime demonstrations erupted in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, in early 2011, government security forces responded with volleys of live ammunition, killing several dozen demonstrators. Despite that crackdown, insurgents might well have toppled the monarchy if Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies had not intervened with two thousand troops in March 2011.
The Obama administration’s tepid response was in marked contrast to the vitriolic condemnation of similar crackdowns in Iran, Syria and Libya. The number of dead during the initial demonstrations in Bahrain and throughout the following months was relatively modest; estimates range from sixty to one hundred. But Bahrain’s population is very small—some 1,235,000 people. On a per capita basis, the fatalities were comparable to or greater than those in other Mideast countries. Moreover, the number of dead is not the only measure of the monarchy’s brutality. Bahrain’s security forces have jailed hundreds of regime opponents—including both domestic and foreign journalists who dared produce accounts critical of the government. Amnesty International and other human-rights organizations also have documented numerous instances of torture.
Yet Washington’s response to the crackdown and even the Saudi-led intervention has been extremely mild. The administration’s official statement did not even specifically criticize Saudi Arabia for sending troops. Instead, the State Department criticized intervention by the kingdom’s “neighbors” (apparently meaning both Iran and Saudi Arabia) as “alarming” and cautioned all players in the region to keep “their own agendas” out of the struggle between the monarchy and its opponents. Such U.S. evenhandedness also applied to the domestic struggle itself. While cautioning the Bahraini monarchy that a security crackdown was not an answer to demands for political and economic reform, the State Department also admonished the opposition “you cannot use violence. You should return to the negotiating table.”
Such a posture of moral equivalence was strikingly different from the U.S. stance toward the turmoil in Iran, Syria and Libya. That double standard became even more apparent in May 2012, when despite continuing credible reports of arbitrary imprisonment and torture of regime opponents, Washington announced the resumption of arms sales to the Bahraini government. Michael Hayworth, a spokesman for Amnesty International, stated that “the suggestion by the U.S. that attempts at reform are happening is insulting to Bahraini activists who continue to call and bleed for human rights.”
Any hope that Obama administration officials might have had that the monarchy would become more restrained in its treatment of regime opponents soon proved unfounded. In September, a Bahraini court upheld jail terms for thirteen leading opposition leaders—including seven facing life in prison—sentences that a special, thoroughly biased tribunal had imposed in June 2011.
The Bahraini government’s continuing repression and brutality is putting Washington in a very awkward position. U.S. leaders clearly give the highest priority to preserving the Fifth Fleet’s main port. Congenitally hawkish analyst Michael Rubin concedes: “As the host of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is the keystone in America’s regional strategy. The Obama administration is right to worry that the overthrow of the monarchy in Bahrain would lead to the eviction of U.S. interests in that tiny island nation.” Beyond that consideration, U.S. leaders are undoubtedly suspicious of Iran’s support for antiregime factions and worry that regime change in Bahrain would enhance Tehran’s power and influence.
But Washington’s blatant double standard entails more than a little risk. Not only is that hypocrisy noted—and exploited—in Shia Iran, but it has led to criticism next door in majority-Shia Iraq and among Shia populations in Syria and Lebanon. One might also wonder about the reaction among Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority.
The United States runs a dual risk with its continued support for the Bahraini monarchy. One aspect is that the apparent double standard strengthens the cynical view among populations in the Middle East and elsewhere that America stands for democracy and human liberty only when it suits Washington’s more tangible interests.
The other danger is that the United States is becoming ever more deeply entangled in the ancient feud between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. Washington’s meddling in Syria raises similar concerns, and the potential for serious blowback against the United States is very high with respect to both the Syrian and Bahraini situations.
The problem involving Bahrain is not going to go away. King Hamad’s government, backed by its Saudi patron, seems determined to retain power no matter how brutal it must become. And the Shia majority grows ever more restless and angry under such autocratic, discriminatory rule.
Washington’s headache in Bahrain threatens to get worse, not better.