The popular uprising in Bahrain shows no signs of going away.
The royal family tried crushing the revolt, importing shock troops from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. It tried jailing important figures in the opposition, such as human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who as of early May had been on hunger strike for 90 days. The island’s rulers tried quieting the opposition by promising to investigate the abuses and making minor cessions of power from the king to the parliament.
None of these strategies has worked. The opposition rejects them as cosmetic changes. The Bahraini majority is angry. It wants authoritarian rule to end, and many Bahrainis would like to see the monarchy disappear. The regime’s answers to this public outrage are birdshot and tear gas. They haven’t produced the terrible death tolls of Libya or Syria, but at least 32 people have died since February 2011.
The United States, which anchors its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, is right in the middle of this simmering crisis. For the most part, Washington is content to look the other way.
In a major speech a year ago, President Barack Obama admitted that the United States has long backed unaccountable Arab potentates and presidents-for-life. He seemed to promise that those days were over. “After decades of accepting the world as it is in the region,” he said, “we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.” Obama devoted several lines of his speech to Bahrain, decrying violations of the “universal rights” of protesters there and calling upon the regime to negotiate in good faith with the opposition.
These days, however, the Obama administration scarcely says a word about Bahrain. Khawaja’s hunger strike brings the mildest of humanitarian pleas. Washington claims to be exerting pressure for dialogue behind the scenes. If that’s the case, it undercut that effort by selling the regime military equipment in February. Obama has also indulged the royal family’s narrative of the uprising, which blames Iran for stoking discontent among Bahraini Shiites.
Saudi Arabia is vigorously promoting this sectarian analysis. Unlike Iran, it has intervened forcefully in Bahrain’s affairs since March of last year. The Saudis are experts at playing on American fears of an emboldened Iran in the Persian Gulf. Their own anxieties are primarily domestic in origin: Only a narrow causeway separates Bahrain from the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia, which is concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern Province and is more oppressed than the assertive Shiite majority across the water. In late April, the Saudis floated the idea of confederation with Bahrain. It provided a clear signal of how determined they are to stop the progress of pro-democratic trends in their immediate vicinity.
A grim irony of the Arab revolts is that the most anti-democratic power in the region — Saudi Arabia — has found itself with such a free hand. Washington is weakened in today’s Middle East by its bellicose overreaction to the September 11 attacks, the utter failure of its Iraq adventure, and its seeming abandonment of the West Bank and East Jerusalem to Israeli settlement. Add election-year worries about oil prices and the specter of double-dip recession, and it is clear that even if the Obama administration wants to, it can impose few constraints on Saudi machinations.
For decades, Washington has paid lip service to liberal values in the Arab world while collaborating with some of the world’s most implacable tyrants in pursuit of material interests. In Bahrain, the Obama administration has continued to “accept the world as it is,” and thus will bear no small responsibility if the uprising is eventually quashed. The case of Bahrain proves, finally, that U.S. officials don’t break their pacts with autocrats unless those rulers’ subjects do the job for them.