U.S. Has Few Options to Curb Crackdown in Bahrain

One idea for U.S. action that's gaining some traction is to close the Bahrain-hosted base of the U.S. Fifth Fleet. In fact, this well-intentioned proposal would do little to improve the situation and would erode precious U.S. leverage in the process. There are no indications that the safety of the base or U.S. personnel is endangered and there were no attacks on the facility during prior bouts of unrest.

Tellingly, no Bahraini opposition leader has echoed this demand. They confide that the base guarantees international scrutiny. Otherwise, they fear, the woes of tiny Bahrain would receive scant attention. Bahraini activists, after all, have been flying to Washington to explain their cause, not to Tehran to train for resistance. To be sure, opposition leaders are starting to question whether the U.S. can deliver on important political issues. But Saudi conservative influence would rule supreme should the U.S. Navy pack and leave, with the prospect of greater oppression.

Removing the Fifth Fleet would weaken even more the small, bruised group of pro-U.S. reformists who count on U.S. words and meetings with American officials for motivation and validation. If Saudi Arabia stepped in to replace the lost U.S. presence with its own financial and political support to the monarchy, it would tip Bahrain's power balance even further away from the opposition, and the country's future even further away from the openness cherished by many Shias as well as by government reformists. Bahraini hardliners already shrug at the damage their country's reputation and economy have taken during the past few months -- why not accept even more?

Closing the base would also send all the wrong regional signals. Iran, whose involvement in the uprising was marginal and has little to show for its bombast, would nevertheless boast that it pushed U.S. forces out of the Gulf. This in turn would raise anxiety among the Gulf states, already paranoid about Iran and doubtful of U.S. commitment in the region, possibly driving them to tighten government restrictions even further. Such a drastic move should occur only as part of a U.S. effort to reduce its military footprint and a regional arrangement that would reassure but also constrains Iran -- not exclusively to punish Bahrain, something that would weaken the U.S. in the process.

For now, as unsatisfying as it seems, all the U.S. can do is ensure the survival of the reformists and the moderate opposition in the hopes that they will find better days. Washington could tell the Bahraini government to drop for good its dangerous idea of banning Al-Wefaq, perhaps through the introduction of new, restrictive legislation on political societies. Al-Wefaq derives legitimacy and standing from its international and diplomatic contacts as well as its links to secular opposition groups. This helps explain why the group works to combat radicalization among its followers and why it chooses peaceful political engagement over confrontation.

This also means talking to the small Gulf states to persuade them of the risks of the current trajectory. While they supported the Saudi-led intervention in Bahrain, they are uncomfortable about this precedent and several are concerned about Saudi overreach. Quietly rallying these states behind Bahrain's reformists would be arduous, especially as tensions in the Persian Gulf peak over the alleged Iranian plot against the Saudi ambassador to Washington. At present, only fellow Gulf states (and not the U.S.) can provide legitimacy, political cover, and financial incentives for a genuine reconciliation and reform process in Bahrain, one that includes the anxious and often overlooked Sunni community.

One final, sometimes unpleasant fact about U.S. diplomacy in the Gulf is that the Pentagon commands far greater respect and influence here than the State Department. Generals and Pentagon civilians should press for reform and dialogue as much as diplomats. Then-Defense Secretary Bob Gates carried that line to the Bahraini monarch back in March. Two days later, Saudi troops rolled into Manama. This is little reason why his successor couldn't take the same stance, and soon.

* -- In fact, Krajeski did not meet anyone from the Bahraini opposition as members of that country's Parliament had alleged. Other State Department officials did meet with them, however, as part of normal U.S. contacts with Al-Wefaq.

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Emile Hokayem is a Bahrain-based Middle East analyst for the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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