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

Though the Persian Gulf island nation is a close U.S. ally and the host of its Fifth Fleet, there's not much that American pressure or diplomacy could do that it isn't already

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A teenager joins anti-government protesters as they try to get back to Manama's Farook Junction, also known as Pearl Square / Reuters

MANAMA, Bahrain -- On Tuesday, the U.S. reached a tentative deal to sell Bahrain, the site of a short-lived uprising and a brutal and sweeping crackdown with sectarian overtones, $53 million in arms. Though the arms deal is not final, it has already drawn criticism from human rights groups and inside Bahrain.

Very soon, the Arab uprising that the U.S. has said the least about is likely to make America's life in the Persian Gulf a lot harder. Bahrain dropped off of the radar this summer. This won't last.

With the international attention elsewhere and unserious attempts at a national dialogue going nowhere, protesters are taking back to the streets and clashing with police in villages around the capital Manama. By-elections to fill the seats of opposition parliamentarians who resigned during the uprising attracted a meager 17 percent of voters. Later this month, an independent investigation commission will submit a report and recommendations about the bloody events of February and March. Whether it will name those who directed the repression, call for a reversal of the often severe and unfair punishments inflicted on protesters, or serve as a national healing mechanism is still unknown, as is the willingness of the Bahraini government to implement its suggestions.

It is doubtful that the report, however needed, will be a game-changer. Two entrenched, increasingly sectarian narratives have crushed any goodwill and middle ground. The battered opposition is struggling to devise a political strategy and contain its frustrated youth, some of whom risk being radicalized. The opposition last week released a new platform, the Manama Document, which restates its demands but is unlikely to inspire its base. The Sunni ruling elite, confident that it won this round decisively and restored a measure of normalcy, is displaying as much complacency as intransigence.

For the U.S., too, this is an uncomfortable moment. It has been mostly silent on Bahrain recently, though President Obama's mentions of Bahrain (and his pointed naming of Al-Wefaq, the largest Shia opposition group) in a May speech and again at the UN last month have ruffled the government and comforted the opposition, which fears the U.S. will ultimately side with the royal family.

For many in Bahrain and the U.S., though, this falls short of U.S. responsibilities to Bahrain. Criticism of the U.S. administration over Bahrain has abounded. The plight of Bahraini workers, teachers, and medical professionals has attracted attention from the international media and from Congress. Influential NGOs and a handful of U.S. congressmen are trying to block the arms sale to the kingdom.

At this time, however, direct U.S. diplomacy can achieve little and it would be unrealistic to expect the U.S. to be able to redress all that has happened in Bahrain or to block an arms sale at the risk of upsetting watchful allies in the region. In fact, the U.S. can hardly play a bridging role between protesters and the monarchy at this point. Many in the Sunni community, a minority here that includes the royal family, see the U.S. as a protector of opposition group Al-Wefaq, which Obama mentioned by name in his UN speech. This explains the Bahraini parliament and media's silly campaign against Tom Krajeski, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Manama. The parliament voted "no confidence" in the ambassador (who has not yet arrived in Bahrain) after he met with opposition groups.* "This diplomat has a volatile agenda against Bahrain and the nation and we can't accept having him here," member of Parliament Ali Ahmed said.

Some of the opposition's charges, such as that the U.S. has given Saudi Arabia carte blanche to interfere in Bahrain or that it keeps silent out of sheer strategic expediency, are simplistic. A better characterization is that Washington, having supported the daring but failed secret dialogue talks of Bahrain's crown prince, folded after Saudi Arabia intervened in March.

However chastened, the U.S. is still trying to help, scoring an important (if overlooked) win in April when it pressured the government against banning Al-Wefaq. To be sure, Al-Wefaq is a sectarian, socially illiberal movement headed by clerics (though this characterization equally applies to a number of Sunni groups). It made, by its own admission, significant mistakes during the secret dialogue (the Manama Document makes several references to the terms the crown prince had offered in March); failed to contain radicals at key junctures (though most remained peaceful, some protesters did resort to violence and intimidation); botched its outreach to Sunni groups; and misread regional dynamics.

Still, Al-Wefaq is no Hezbollah and hardly an Iranian pawn. It has shunned violence, sectarian rhetoric, and the dream of fringe opposition factions that Bahrain become a Shia-dominated republic. (Such a state would likely become politically isolated among wealthier, more powerful Sunni monarchies and economically unviable as most of the island's budget comes from an oil field whose production is a Saudi prerogative under an international treaty.) Al-Wefaq hopes that cooler heads in the ruling family will be able to re-enter the political game after losing credibility among many Sunnis for their willingness to engage with the opposition. It too, however, needs to mature.

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.