Terms of Engagement

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Barack Obama has been saying the right things about democracy in the Arab world. Bahrain, a key U.S. ally, will be the test of whether he really means them.


When President Barack Obama gave his Middle East speech last week, I was listening to hear what he would say about Bahrain. I know that Bahrain is way down on the list of exciting Arab conflicts, but it poses a peculiarly excruciating problem for American policymakers: the problem of the autocratic ally. It was easy for Obama to praise the protesters who toppled regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, or to condemn the brutal crackdowns in Libya and Syria, where regime change would now serve U.S. interests. But Bahrain is a key U.S. ally and the host of the Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which enables the United States to project power in the Persian Gulf.

Obama, to his credit, faced the issue squarely and said the right things. He rejected a policy based upon the "narrow pursuit" of national interest, insisting that American support for "universal rights" will be "a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions." He decried the "mass arrests and brute force" used by the Bahraini regime against peaceful protesters and added — to applause from his audience of State Department officials — that "you can’t have real dialogue when parts of the opposition are in jail." Several days later, the president backed up his words by designating Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg as presidential envoy to Bahrain and dispatching him and a team of other officials to Manama, where they relayed the administration’s concerns to King Hamad al-Khalifa and his most senior advisors. But what will Obama do if the king calls his bluff? Nobody knows, including the administration itself.

Like the other oil states in the Gulf, Bahrain is ruled by a conservative Sunni dynasty with scant regard for democracy or human rights and sufficient wealth to buy social peace. Bahrain, however, has less oil than the others, which has made it more restive; the Khalifa dynasty, which has ruled the kingdom since the 18th century, has responded to the unrest with slightly more political experimentation than its brethren (which is not saying much).

But what also makes Bahrain distinctive is the fact that at least two-thirds of the population is Shiite, which has given a distinctly sectarian cast to the protest movement. Bahrain’s Shiite population suffers from political and economic discrimination, including exclusion from government posts, gerrymandering that has reduced their political representation, and high unemployment. But both the ruling family and their vastly more powerful patrons, the Saudis, have demonized the critics as agents of Iran, seeking to extend its influence in the region through local Shiite populations. An indigenous protest movement has thus been conflated with a (very real) regional threat, thus making political compromise look like an act of surrender.

When discontent began sweeping the Arab world earlier this year, Bahrain already had a long history of protest, limited reform, and repression. King Hamad, who ascended to the throne in 1999, had first raised hopes among both Sunni and Shiite critics, and then disappointed them. The king largely reneged on promised constitutional reforms in 2002, prompting violent demonstrations and a harsh response by the security apparatus. This February, protesters occupied Pearl Square to once again demand an accountable state and a representative and empowered parliament. The regime was unsure how to respond, first forcibly clearing out the demonstrators in a sweep that lead to seven deaths, then offering negotiations with the crown prince, the leading "moderate" among the royal family. But the talks collapsed over demands that Bahrain’s hated prime minister step down, and on March 14 the king "invited" a Saudi-led force to enter Bahrain to help suppress the protests.

The Saudi intervention marked the decisive end of discussion, as well as the beginning of a period of unprecedented brutality. Hundreds of opposition leaders have been jailed, and many have offered credible accounts of torture. Security forces have attacked doctors, hospitals, patients, and ambulances thought to be assisting protesters. Students at the University of Bahrain have been forced to sign a loyalty oath; those who refuse must leave the university, as hundreds have. Astonishingly, Bahrain is now the most repressive and violent state in the Gulf.

The Obama administration initially sought to nudge the ruling family to negotiate with the moderate opposition. But the White House was silent on the Saudi intervention, and until the president’s speech, no senior official had publicly criticized the regime in recent months. The administration seemed to have acknowledged that the Saudis had carried the day. But the silence brought with it the inevitable implication that the president was unwilling to take on either the Saudis or an ally who hosts the Fifth Fleet — a telling sign of the limits of Obama’s commitment to democratic reform in the Middle East.

Obama’s speech ended that silence, and sent a signal that the White House did not, in fact, accept the status quo. One member of the team that visited Manama last week told me the delegation urged the king and his ministers to release prisoners, restore civil liberties, and "put the burden on the opposition" by re-opening discussions over political reform. "We found them fairly receptive to our message," said this official — but he acknowledged that Bahraini officials offered no explicit promise to do anything. In fact, he said, the Bahrainis tried to parry every criticism by insisting that they had acted within the confines of the law. The Americans rejoined that "the appearance was not good." It doesn’t sound like they were reading anyone the riot act.

And maybe they were in no position to do so. As another, less hopeful administration official says, "We have leverage, but we don’t have leverage." Tougher public criticism probably won’t change the ruling family’s calculus. Neither the Saudis nor the Emiratis, who share the Saudi fear of Iranian ambitions, have shown any give, and you can’t threaten to move the Fifth Fleet unless you can find an equally hospitable and well-situated place to anchor it. "This is in some ways the hardest of all the puzzles," he says. "The stakes are really high, and it is a flashpoint."

White House officials are hoping that the king will use the June 1 expiration of the emergency laws imposed on March 15 as an opportunity to start undoing the damage. Those hopes are probably vain. In an e-mail message, Khalil Almarzooq, deputy leader of the parliamentary bloc of al-Wefaq, Bahrain’s leading political society (actual parties are banned), said that while he and his colleagues welcomed both the speech and the visit, security forces continued to raid schools and arrest teachers, attack medical personnel, and fire government employees suspected of engaging in protests. The government-controlled press continues to accuse U.S. diplomats of serving as Iranian dupes. "The visit and the speech," Almarzooq wrote, "had no input to change the regime attitudes toward the continued [human rights] violations nor to approaching the political issues with commitment to real reform through a meaningful dialogue."

Arab autocrats have long since mastered the art of showing just enough commitment to reform to mollify the Americans. When push comes to shove, they know that the United States will back down — as President George W. Bush did when, at the very height of his campaign of democracy promotion in the Middle East, he chose not to respond after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak blatantly rigged parliamentary elections in 2005. But that cynical game has come to an end because Arab publics suddenly stood up for themselves. With the Arab world in ferment, the United States can no longer afford to stand by its autocratic allies. That was the central message of Obama’s speech last week (at least the part that wasn’t about Israel). Reformers in the Middle East heard that message, and welcomed it. And they’re going to hold Obama to his promise. In Bahrain, they’re going to find out whether he meant what he said.

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