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
"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
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.