Bahrain Festers

The International Crisis Group released a Conflict Risk Alert yesterday about Bahrain. I highly recommend it for its brevity and clarity. The alert summarizes where the conflict between the opposition and royal family stands after a year of protests. It also points to two eventualities that could super-charge anti-regime activism in the country:  the controversial upcoming Formula 1 races, which the regime hopes will prove the country is stable; and the fate of Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, an activist who is challenging his detainment with a hunger strike now more than two months old. ICG prescribes the following:

To break this stalemate and move forward, the government should fully implement the Bassiouni Report’s recommendations [from November], releasing all political prisoners (including Alkhawaja) and holding senior officials accountable for excessive force and torture. It also must begin reforming the security forces, ensuring they fully reflect Bahrain’s make-up by integrating members of all communities. For its part, the opposition should abjure violence more explicitly than in the past and declare its readiness to participate in a dialogue on reform without preconditions.

Easier said than done, of course. But still sound. It’s worth noting that the broader Arab public knows what’s going on in the tiny Gulf statelet, even though Washington avoids it, Western media rarely covers it, and even Arab sources–like Al Jazeera–shy away from it. (Instead, Al Jazeera focuses more on Syria because the monarchy in Qatar, which maintains some degree of editorial control over the station, hopes Bahrain’s Khalifa family will endure.) The U.S., meanwhile, enjoys the best perch in the Persian Gulf and is headquartered in Manama. Pushing the Khalifa family toward reconciliation could backfire. Though none would admit it publicly, losing the Fifth Fleet’s position may not be worth it to some American policymakers. U.S. officials remain silent.

That said, the Obama administration deserves some credit for its approach to the Arab uprisings. The White House quickly recognized that popular will in many countries was undeniable. And so, just a few days after the Egyptian uprising began in earnest, President Obama called for President Mubarak of Egypt to step down. For many this wasn’t fast enough and I can understand why protesters in Tahrir Square thought it was too little too late. But until January 2011, Mubarak provided the bedrock for America’s Middle East strategy for thirty years; his regime cooperated on security matters, shared intelligence, and maintained the peace with Israel. The White House and Pentagon also worked behind the scenes encouraging the Egyptian military to show restraint.

Libya is another example of this administration trying to place the U.S. on the “right side” of history in a time of tremendous change. While the strategic logic of intervention was not abundantly clear to some, the White House supported intervention with international approval because it feared Qaddafi’s brutal crackdown would send the wrong signal to other dictators under siege. The Libyan example, according to this reading, would inspire more autocrats to crack down harder and faster, out of fear that they would become the next Mubarak. International norms and the rule of law was also at stake: leaving massive atrocities unanswered would only encourage them.

But America’s response to other uprisings doesn’t cancel out the administration’s silence on Bahrain. The regime’s promotion of discrimination, torture, and abuse in the wake of last year’s uprising has only created the conditions for further unrest. And refusal to address outstanding issues with urgency has undermined the ruling family’s legitimacy as well as America’s democratic pretensions. If ill will finally results in a dramatic rupture or real revolution, there will be few off-ramps for the royal family–and no appealing options for the U.S. other than to pack up and leave.

Now that energized Arab publics have the chance to make policy for the first time in decades, the U.S. can’t afford to ignore popular opinion. I’m not arguing in favor of bending to foreign will where and whenever it appears. The U.S. still maintains interests which are not subject to negotiation. But Washington must be sensitive to the fact that vocal support for democracy in some states only rings as hypocritical when cases like Bahrain are ignored. While President Obama does not need to demand the ouster of Bahrain’s ruling family, he would be wise to prioritize a fair resolution in Bahrain and invest political capital in a resolution that is surely easier to attain than a settlement between Israel and Palestine.

The U.S. must champion human dignity even if it does not actively promote democracy. Repairing America’s reputation in the Middle East will take years but that doesn’t mean we can’t start now.

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