Here's One Way to Stop the Brutal Repression in Bahrain

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Threatening to remove the Navy's Fifth Fleet from the despotic kingdom might help end the monarchy's horrific human rights abuses.

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Anti-government protesters, one of them holding a Bahraini flag, run to take cover from tear gas fired by riot police during clashes in the village of Sanabis, west of Manama on February 14, 2013. (Hamad Mohammed/Reuters)

By all accounts, the status quo in Bahrain looks intractable. The tiny island monarchy, ruled by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, has been roiled by protests and street battles since February 2011. A vast majority of Shiite protesters calling for democratic reforms and equal rights under the law, and some calling for the dissolution of the monarchy, have been met with force by the minority Sunni regime, aided by the symbolic deployment of Saudi and UAE security forces.

The Fifth Fleet's presence has lent legitimacy to a regime that has consistently denied equal rights to the majority of its people.

Demonstrations intensified again in recent weeks as protesters commemorated the two-year anniversary of the uprising against the Al-Khalifa regime. Despite its stated commitment to support democratization in the region, the United States hasn't distanced itself from the Bahraini regime, which continues its unrelenting repression of its majority population.

The U.S. does have at least one lever to pull -- although in reality, any action is likely to be more symbolic than effectual.

Bahrain has been home to our Navy's Fifth Fleet since 1995. To demonstrate our commitment to enabling reform in Bahrain, Washington could begin planning to move the fleet in order to telegraph our intent to curtail ties with a repressive regime. Bahrain's rulers might respond with meaningful reforms, and if they don't, at least the U.S. will not have to choose between its stated interests and its security needs.

Here's what's brought us to the point where such a move may be necessary:

In the days leading up to the anniversary of the protests, King Hamad called for renewed dialogue between Sunni and Shiite political parties. The regime itself refused to participate, opting only to organize these talks. Therefore, negotiations were doomed from the outset, as the opposition had voiced their desire to negotiate directly with the government.

This is not the first time the monarchy has refused to follow through on initiatives that might lead to reform. In November 2011, the regime tacitly agreed to implement the recommendations made in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). This task force, established by King Hamad and headed by Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni, a noted international lawyer, found that the government used excessive force and engaged in torture and suggested a series of comprehensive reforms. So far, however, the Al-Khalifa regime has only fulfilled three of these twenty-six recommendations, garnering public criticism. Instead of reforming, the government has used the ongoing instability to play upon sectarian divisions within the region and the country, claiming Iranian interference. (The BICI and U.S. officials concluded that Iran has played no active role in the unrest.)

These days, clashes between protesters and security forces continue unabated, with approximately ninety people killed since the uprising began and hundreds jailed indefinitely. The Obama administration's muted response stands as in stark contrast to the U.S.'s rhetorical commitment to the Arab uprisings and their democratic promise. If only for the sake of consistency, to say nothing of our commitment to human rights and democracy, the administration should attempt to pressure the Al-Khalifa regime to make necessary reforms and engage in real dialogue.

The Democracy Report

Even if making a political point in the region were not a goal, it may make sense to relocate the Fleet.

Conventional wisdom holds that the Fifth Fleet - which we should remember, was only established in 1995 - ensures that vital oil shipping lanes remain open while acting as a bulwark against Iran's regional ambitions, an outgrowth of the Carter Doctrine . National security leaders have begun to question whether it is necessary to retain this presence to protect our interests in the Gulf. Former Director of National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair has suggested we remove the Fifth Fleet immediately and relocate it to a "flagship" as it was in the past. At this point, however, we do not have a plan on how to relocate the fleet if it became necessary.

The mere idea of removing the fleet could anger hardliners in the Al-Khalifa regime, who have become empowered in recent years. It could also strain our relations with other Gulf monarchies, especially the Saudis, and would be expensive for the United States in a tight budgetary climate. However, preparations for such a move will demonstrate to the Al-Khalifa regime we expect that meaningful reforms be implemented in Bahrain as soon as possible.

Some would argue this movie is risky, with little to gain. The Al-Khalifa regime may refuse to reform and, if we do indeed remove the Fifth Fleet, we will only anger our allies in the Gulf. As Emile Hoyakem argued more than a year ago, Saudi Arabia will fill the military and economic void left by the United States if we remove the fleet, and hardline elements of the Al-Khalifa regime would be further emboldened.

Still, the United States' silence on Bahrain is damaging to its reputation as a supporter of democracy and rule of law.

Planning to move the Fleet won't jeopardize oil supplies, as Toby Craig Jones argues. Gulf oil producers are dependent on our consumption and will therefore continue oil production and exportation at the current levels. Militarily, our ability to respond throughout the Middle East will not be hindered if the fleet is moved - in fact, it would complement the overall goal to reduce our footprint in the region as we withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the Fifth Fleet's presence in Bahrain has lent legitimacy to a minority regime that has consistently denied equal rights to the majority of its people.

Graphic: Mark Bromley and Pieter Wezeman, Policies on exports of arms to states affected by the Arab Spring, International Arms Transfers, SIPRI Yearbook 2012.

 
The Century Foundation
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Thérèse Postel

Thérèse Postel is a policy associate in international affairs at The Century Foundation.

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