Time to Disband the Bahrain-Based U.S. Fifth Fleet

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The massive American naval base provides legitimacy for the autocratic Bahraini regime, reinforces our problematic reliance on the Gulf, and may be strategically unnecessary

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U.S. Navy


After months of popular protests against the regime, Bahraini officials are desperate to convince anyone who will listen, and most importantly to their long time allies in Washington, that the Persian Gulf island nation is returning to normal. On Tuesday, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa visited the White House, where he offered assurances that the regime is serious about political reform and engaging in a "national dialogue" with the country's beleaguered opposition. Although it has directed muted criticism toward the Bahraini government, the Obama administration has offered repeated reassurances that it intends to stand by the ruling family. The White House appears to believe, or is banking on hope, that the Crown Prince is both willing and able to shepherd the country through the current crisis. But it may be time for the U.S. to reconsider its largest commitment to the Bahraini monarchy -- the massive U.S. Fifth Fleet docked on the island -- and the complicated relationship of mutual dependency that got us here in the first place.

Whatever opening there was for real dialogue in Bahrain, it appears to have closed. While the Crown Prince is busy touring Europe and the U.S. promoting himself as a force for moderation, it's the hardliners in the royal family who currently hold power. Rather than reconciliation, their priority continues to be to oppressing -- and often punishing - the protesters calling for a more representative government. The regime has taken extreme, frequently violent measures to destroy the country's political opposition and defeat the forces of democracy.

Over the last few months, as the regime's security forces have cracked down ever more brutally, the prospects for meaningful reform may well have passed. Since mid-March, when Saudi Arabia sent a contingent of its National Guard into Bahrain to help violently clear the streets of protesters, Bahrain has been the scene of terrible suffering. Hundreds languish in the country's dungeons, where they are subject to horrifying torture and the humiliation of being paraded in front of military tribunals. Thousands of others have been sacked from their jobs.

The island's Shiite majority, long politically marginalized and discriminated against, is paying the heaviest price. They have been stunned into silence by the vicious behavior of the Sunni regime. Bahraini politics have been polarized by sectarianism and the country's rulers are systematically creating an apartheid state. Reconciliation, let alone accountability for those responsible for the violence, is a remote possibility. So deeply ingrained are mutual antagonisms that, if this conflict continues, the most likely outcome may be an enduring hostility and the potential for perennial violence.

American officials are, of course, well aware of all of this. Their reluctance to condemn Bahrain is the result of a deeply ingrained belief in Washington that the U.S. needs Bahrain to help it preserve regional stability and to protect friendly oil producers in the Persian Gulf. Most important is Saudi Arabia, which is connected to Bahrain by a short causeway. The U.S. has had military ties to Bahrain since the 1970s, when its Navy first began using old British imperial facilities there. Since the mid-1990s, Bahrain has been home the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, which positions the island at the center of a sprawling military presence in the region. The base at Bahrain, from which the Fifth Fleet projects American force across the Middle East, South Asia, and East Africa, occupies a key physical and political placein U.S. geostrategic calculus.

The fleet carries the burden of patrolling the stormy waters of the Gulf as well as the Arabian and Red Seas, and according to conventional wisdom, for ensuring the flow of oil to global markets. It also serves as a not-so-subtle reminder to Iran that the U.S. is willing and able to protect its "vital interests" in the Gulf with overwhelming firepower.

It is widely believed that the Fifth Fleet has served American interests well. There may have been a time when this was true. Today it is not.

There are a number of reasons why the Fifth Fleet may well have become a political liability, irrelevant, or possibly even both. The cost of maintaining a large military presence in the Gulf drains American resources and limits the United States' flexibility in dealing with regional crises. Most importantly, its presence enables regional allies to act recklessly. Saudi Arabia would almost certainly not have sent its troops into neighboring Bahrain - a sovereign country - if the Saudi and Bahraini leaderships did not assume they were protected by their patrons in the U.S. military.

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Toby C. Jones is assistant professor of history at Rutgers University. He is author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia and an editor at Middle East Report.

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