Blunder in Bahrain
By Joshua Jacobs
June 1, 2011
There is no country affected by the Arab Spring that the US has made more mistakes and miscalculations in than Bahrain. Though King Hamad announced that he would lift the state of emergency as promised on June 1st, the scars of the brutal crackdown will remain raw. For several months the ruling al-Khalifa family has been engaged in a stunningly brutal crackdown against the democratic opposition. A crackdown which has encompassed mass arrests, alleged torture, dozens of killings, and a widespread demolition campaign of Shia mosques. The crackdown however was met with muted criticism from the Obama administration.
The silence from Washington has been a recurring theme since crisis began in early February; when the country was convulsed in protests seeking a reform of the 2002 Constitution and new democratic elections. In response to the protests the Sunni elite unleashed the security forces in a swift crackdown which killing dozens, and imprisoning hundreds more. The regime then brought in thousands of Saudi troops under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to reinforce the Monarchy. This was done under the cover of safeguarding Bahrain from Iranian influence despite little evidence of the existance of such a threat from Tehran. But by invoking Iran the GCC and Bahraini governments gained a free hand to pull in thousands of troops to fortify the regime, and to unleash an even more severe series of crackdowns. The response from the United States was the same as it was this for the entirety of the crisis: acquiescence.
The Shia of Bahrain make up the vast majority of the country yet are heavily disenfranchised and discriminated against by the ruling Sunni monarchy. Despite comprising 70% of the population, electoral districts have been rigged to preclude a Shia majority in the parliament. The Sunni elite have created a sectarian police and security apparatus by importing thousands of Sunni soldiers and police from throughout the Arab world. There is also a broad effort to import Sunni immigrants to change the sectarian make-up of Bahrain with foreigners. These constitute a few of the major grievances of the protesters. They are also decidedly democratic in nature and clearly legitimate, and so would seemingly engender US support.
However, the United States has thrown the opposition under the bus in an effort to satisfy regional actors. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States have been increasingly concerned over the collapse of allied regimes in Egypt and Yemen and the spread of democratic contagion to their borders. They believe the US has not shown concern for their interests and has failed to present a strong face to Iran. So when Saudi Arabia declared Bahrain a red line issue and intervened the US not only failed to condemn the intervention but tacitly endorsed the Saudi narrative. It was not long after the intervention that the US position shifted from lukewarm criticism to what was almost an outright endorsement by Secretary Gates who commented on Iranian interference in Bahrain. The US has sacrificed the democratic movement in Bahrain to safeguard relations with Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC as well as concern for the spread of Iranian influence.
It is however a shortsighted view and a losing policy which only harms US interests in the long term. The crackdowns have only served to transform an opposition which had largely moderate constitutional demands into an opposition that is becoming virulently opposed to the al-Khalifa Monarchy. If reconciliation becomes impossible as a result of further crackdowns this will plant a time-bomb of discontent at the heart of the Gulf. The main Shia groups in Bahrain have never asked for Iranian assistance and indeed have repeatedly rejected offers over the years. But by giving the opposition no way out the risk develops that they will turn to Iran for aid. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy; by intervening to stop a non-existent Iranian threat an Iranian threat is in fact created.
Tehran also gains crucial ammunition for a propaganda campaign which could further inflame the region and harm US interests. Already there have been protests in Iraq, a Shia majority country with an incredibly fragile political environment and one where Iran wields enormous influence. In Lebanon there is the militant Shia movement Hezbollah which benefits from the loss of US credibility. Like Iran they can trumpet the Western consented crackdown on Shiites, scoring political points across the region. Bahrain also importantly highlights US hypocrisy on democracy and has already begun to deal damage to America’s popular standing. By failing to come down strongly on Bahrain US rhetoric on Iran, Syria, and Libya is made hollow and sends a message that will be remembered for years to come. While a hardened opposition in Bahrain and a continued reactionary offensive in the Gulf imperil those countries stability and have dire ramifications for US policy in the region. The US must act while the opportunity still exists to effect the outcome. Such an opportunity will come when King Hamad lifts the state of emergency on June 1st. King Hamad has called for national dialogue to resolve the crisis, this is a chance for the US to offer its services as a mediator and/or to pressure the GCC and the al-Khalifas to live up to promises of sincere dialogue. Any injection of American influence into the strategic calculus in Manama is a positive step that can help in restraining the security forces, assist in the reaching of a political settlement, and in negating Iranian propaganda.
Joshua Jacobs is a policy analyst at the Institute for Gulf Affairs.