Obama's UN Address and the Bahrain Exception

Why is the U.S. treating this Arab state so differently than the others?

bahrain sep21 p.jpg


President Barack Obama, in his speech today to the United Nations, championed the growing U.S. foreign policy emphasis on supporting pro-democracy movements, name-checking the U.S. support for popular uprisings in Libya, Syria, Côte d'Ivoire, and even Yemen. He offered (somewhat retroactive) support for the successful democratic revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. And he made the usual, if unusually brief, call for Iran to improve its human rights. But Obama's tone changed when he brought up the tiny, oil-rich Persian Gulf island nation of Bahrain, where the U.S.-aligned monarchy has been cracking down violently on peaceful demonstrators, to little public protest from the U.S.

The Democracy ReportThe change in Obama's language and tone when his speech moved from Iran, Syria, and Yemen to Bahrain was difficult to miss. He did not mention the thousands of Bahrainis "protesting peacefully, standing silently in the streets, dying for the same values that this institution is supposed to stand for," as he did with Syria. Nor he call for "a peaceful transition of power ... and a movement to free and fair elections as soon as possible" as he did with Yemen. He did not scold the Bahraini regime for "refus[ing] to recognize the rights of its own people" as did with Iran. Obama declined to declare that "the balance of fear shifted from the ruler to those that he ruled" as he did of Tunisia. He absolutely did not demand "a movement to free and fair elections as soon as possible."

When Obama spoke of Bahrain, his words sounded more like those of so many U.S. presidential foreign policy addresses of before the Arab Spring: we support our ally, call on him to lead reform, but would rather not discuss his autocratic rule or use of violence against protesters.

In Bahrain, steps have been taken toward reform and accountability, but more are required. America is a close friend of Bahrain, and we will continue to call on the government and the main opposition bloc -- the Wifaq -- to pursue a meaningful dialogue that brings peaceful change that is responsive to the people. And we believe the patriotism that binds Bahrainis together must be more powerful than the sectarian forces that would tear them apart.

His more muted choice of adjectives, oblique non-reference to the brutal crackdown and entrenching autocracy, even his use of passive voice all echo the older style of U.S. rhetoric on reform in the Middle East. It seems an awful lot like, for example, U.S. policy toward Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from 2000 through early 2011, when the U.S. pressured its close ally to democratize, to little actual consequence for either the U.S.-Egypt relationship or the Egyptian people. But what's so jarring about Obama's adherence to this old way of doing things when it comes to Bahrain is that his administration has, over the past nine months of the Arab spring, legitimately changed course. In April, the U.S. shifted support from Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a close and long-held U.S. ally, to the peaceful protesters seeking his ouster. The U.S. doesn't just support democratic opposition movements challenging American enemies anymore, Obama seemed to be signalling, but those challenging American allies as well.

Why, then, is Obama sticking by Bahrain King Hamid Al Khalifa, whose regime has launched what the New York Times called "a ferocious crackdown against a popular uprising -- so sweeping it smacks of apartheidlike repression of Bahrain's religious majority -- many fear that no one can win." There's the optimistic take, the pessimistic take, the cynical take, and the super-cynical, Saudi-rules-all take.

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

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