Obama's UN Address and the Bahrain Exception

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

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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.

The optimistic take says that Obama doesn't want to disrupt the behind-the-scenes effort to find a negotiated settlement that will peacefully resolve the political crisis and initiate democratic reforms, following the example of Morocco's now-liberalizing monarchy. Maybe the U.S. would be helping to lead such efforts, maybe the UN. But, other than the occasional off-the-record hint from a U.S. official or someone close to them, there's not much evidence that, even if any such diplomatic effort does exist, it's got much hope of success. Still, the Bahraini regime is deeply reliant on the U.S., which docks its Fifth Fleet on the island, and would at least have to pretend to listen to U.S. peace efforts.

In the pessimistic take, the U.S. never really altered its pre-Arab Spring policy of supporting reliably pro-American dictators, whether it was Egypt's Mubarak or Bahrain's Al Khalifa. The turn against Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in this line of thinking, only came because Obama saw Saleh's fall as inevitable and hoped to co-opt that opposition movement that was sure to eventually win. This idea, particularly common among parts of the Arab world still deeply skeptical of American influence, fits with a certain reading of realism-driven U.S. foreign policy but can be difficult to square with Obama's decisions since February.

The cynical take believes that the U.S. has in fact changed its foreign policy as Obama claims and as his responses to the Arab Spring this year suggest, but has made an exception for Bahrain. It's not hard to imagine why the U.S. might shrug its shoulders at tiny Bahrain, which has not inspired the same passions across the Arab world or in the U.S. as did the uprisings in Egypt, Libya, and now Syria. The Bahraini opposition is largely Shia, but most Arabs (and most Muslims, for that matter) are Sunni. Bahrain's King Al Khalifa doesn't have anywhere near the same international infamy as Mubarak, Qaddafi, or Syria's Bashar al-Assad. The "soft power" dividends of pushing Bahrain to reform, the U.S. may have decided, just aren't there.

The super-cynical, Saudi-rules-all take has Bahrain as the sad pawn of two of the Middle East's biggest players. Bahrain has long positioned itself as a client state to Saudi Arabia as well as the U.S., something that is causing it problems now that those two regional powers are coming into conflict over the Arab Spring. The Saudi monarchy, being a monarchy, is nervous about the democratic movements and has worked quietly to roll many of them back, especially in Bahrain, where it sent hundreds of troops to aid in the crackdown. The Saudi monarchs see their fellow Sunnis in the Bahraini monarchy as natural allies, and fear that democracy there would put the Shia majority into power and likely to turn toward the great Saudi enemy, Shia-majority Iran. The U.S., wary of enraging Saudi Arabia any more than it already has, may worry that pushing reform in Bahrain could be too risky for the U.S.-Saudi alliance, already damaged by U.S. activism on behalf of a region-wide democratic wave that the Saudi regime opposes.

The truth is probably some combination of these four. But whatever the cause, Obama's UN address made clear that, for all his soaring rhetoric on democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, and for all the very real U.S. action that has backed that rhetoric, the U.S. will not be bringing much in the way of either democracy or talk of it to Bahrain anytime soon.