The Bahrain Dilemma: Obama's Speech No Solution, but a Step Closer

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With his address on the Middle East, President Obama surprised many observers by condemning the Bahraini government, a close U.S. ally. But will it be enough?

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This past September, before the world had ever heard of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit seller whose self-immolation would inspire the Arab world to rise up against their autocratic governments, the U.S. faced a dilemma in Bahrain An influential blogger and activist named Ali Abdulemam, one of the tiny island nation's most prominent liberal voices, had been arrested by the restrictive Bahraini regime.

The Democracy ReportWould the U.S. demand his release, as it had done in a similar case in Mauritania, and as activists and NGOs in the U.S. and Middle East were urging? Or would the U.S. stay silent, preferring not to upset the close ally, near-client state, official host of the strategically crucial U.S. Fifth Fleet, and bulwark against Iran that is the Bahraini royal family? The U.S., following the same interest-driven path it has almost always taken since the end of World War Two, ultimately sided with the regime and not with Abdulemam or the rest of Bahrain's embattled, imprisoned, and, often, brutally tortured activists.

That dilemma could have been a microcosm of the one the U.S. faces in Bahrain today. As protesters continue to gather in the capital of Manama, the royal family has responded with escalating violence, much of it performed by a contingent of 2,000 troops brought in from neighboring Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. Though neither as violent nor as brutal as Muammar Qaddafi's Libya or Bashar al-Assad's Syria, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa's Bahrain every day looks more like an oppressive police state that is able to hang on, in part, because it also happens to be a close U.S. ally.

Few observers in either the U.S. or the Middle East seemed to expect that President Obama's speech today on the Middle East would seriously depart from the hesitant but steadfast support that both he and George W. Bush have given Bahrain, or that Obama was even likely to mention the country at all. For activists in the region, "Bahrain" had become a keyword, a symbol that American foreign policy, no matter how ideologically committed to freedom and liberty its leaders claimed it to be, was still at its core about protecting American security and energy, those two pursuits that have so tainted America's history in the Middle East. Obama, whatever his words and actions on Egypt, Libya, and Syria, still looked to many in the Arab world, for the blind eye he appeared to be turning to Bahrain, like a hypocrite.

"If America is to be credible, we must acknowledge that our friends in the region have not all reacted to the demands for change consistent with the principles that I have outlined today. That is true in Yemen, where President Saleh needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power. And that is true, today, in Bahrain," Obama said this afternoon.

In pressing Bahrain's regime in the speech, Obama took the same first step that he took in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen before pushing for those countries' leaders to step down. He called for an end to the crackdown and the opening of a "dialogue" about reforming the political system. "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. The government must create the conditions for dialogue," he said. Over eight months after the U.S. stood silent over Ali Abulemam's imprisonment, Obama has publicly tied U.S. support for Bahrain to the release of political prisoners.

Obama's most significant criticism of the Bahraini regime came when he said, "For this season of change to succeed, Coptic Christians must have the right to worship freely in Cairo, just as Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain." In comparing Egypt's Christian minority to the persecuted Bahraini Shia majority, who also make up many of the protesters, Obama did far more than just condemn the Khalifa government's violence against protesters. Americans, as members of a secular but majority Christian nation, have long sympathized with the Middle East's persecuted Christians. Obama's line was clearly meant to evoke sympathy among Americans for the Shia protesters, and to signal that the U.S. would be shifting, if ever so slightly, its political as well as cultural loyalties from the Sunni Khalifa regime to the rallying Shia majority.

There is no guarantee that Obama's call for "dialogue" in Bahrain, and the private diplomatic efforts that no doubt accompany that call, will be enough to prod Khalifa to truly reform. And it remains extremely unlikely, as Obama's doubters in the region point out, that the U.S. would ever seek the Bahraini regime's ouster, as it has in Egypt, Yemen, and Libya. Obama's speech does not resolve the Bahrain dilemma, a problem that is small in scope by symptomatic of the larger U.S. struggle to reconcile its desire for a democratic Middle East with the allure of a stable status quo, nor does it finally or decisively align America's foreign policy interests with its ideals. But by taking this small step away from one of the closest and most problematic U.S. Arab allies in a region full of unsavory and regrettable allies, Obama is clearly trying to move the U.S. toward the right side of history. Ali Abdulemam may not be free -- he was released from prison but is currently in hiding -- but the U.S. will no longer stand in his way, and may some day become the ally that he and his fellow liberal Arab activists will need.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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