The government of Bahrain’s unremitting repression and human rights abuses against its political opposition are leading the country down a road that over the coming years promises instability and a significant escalation of domestic conflict. The United States, with the headquarters of its Fifth Fleet located in Bahrain, has an important stake in how this situation plays out.
Bahrain’s continued failure to pursue reconciliation with opposition groups could put U.S. military personnel at risk, provide Iran with an opportunity to expand its influence in Bahrain, endanger the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, and undermine the security of a region that remains vital to American interests. Washington needs to dramatically increase pressure on Bahrain’s rulers to embrace serious political, social, and economic reforms to avoid these dangers.
Ever since Bahrain caught the Arab Spring fever five years ago, the government has repeatedly thumbed its nose at American and international appeals for greater reforms. After a brutal government crackdown on dissenters in 2011, the ruling family promised to improve the rule of law and hold accountable members of the security forces who had engaged in the most egregious abuses. However, it subsequently reneged on most of these commitments. The Obama administration, after mildly protesting the government’s excesses, slapped Bahrain’s rulers on the wrist with a suspension of minor arms sales, which it eventually lifted after more empty promises of change.
Political and human rights conditions in Bahrain are worse now than they were five years ago. According to Nabeel Rajab, a prominent human rights activist who has been imprisoned several times, there are over 4,000 political prisoners in the kingdom. In the past few months, the government has stripped of his citizenship Sheikh Isa Qassim, the spiritual leader of the country’s Shia population. It has also dissolved Al-Wefaq, the largest political association in the country, and extended the prison sentence of its leader.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry condemned these actions, stating that they “only undermine Bahrain’s cohesion and security … and are inconsistent with U.S. interests and strain our partnership with Bahrain.” He is absolutely right. But to paraphrase Frederick the Great, diplomacy without leverage is like music without instruments.
With its toothless hortatory responses to Bahrain’s human rights abuses, Washington has led Manama to believe that it can pursue its perilous course without having to fear any serious consequences from the United States. In other words, Washington has signaled to Bahrain that it is too important to fail, which only encourages it to continue its risky behavior. The United States has an interest in preserving stability in Bahrain, as well as its own relationship with a pro-American government. Gradual reforms are critical to the kingdom’s long-term stability, but Bahrain’s illiberal domestic policies may be endangering this goal by empowering extremist factions among the political opposition.
If the U.S. government believes that continued repression will eventually incite more widespread and persistent domestic violence, then Washington needs to put diplomatic muscle behind its rhetoric. To protect America’s long-term strategic interests in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. should put its longstanding security relationship on the line to prod Bahrain to seek a political accommodation with the opposition. The Pentagon has to begin basing its future plans in the region on the assumption that the current U.S. military presence in Bahrain is unsustainable unless the government moves in a different political direction.
It is possible that if the U.S. publicly invokes the specter of change it could induce a more accommodating position from the government of Bahrain toward the opposition. But Washington has no capacity to bluff and it should not expect to alter Bahraini policy with subtle hints or even explicit threats unsupported by actual actions. To be credible, the administration will need to make the decision to withdraw and begin implementing this to have any effect on the Bahraini calculus. If at that point the political situation dramatically changes, Washington would be able to re-evaluate its decision.
A U.S. decision to withdraw its military assets from Bahrain is fraught with risks and uncertain prospects for success. It would provoke negative reactions from Bahrain and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies, especially Saudi Arabia. The Bahrainis will claim that America is throwing it under a bus. GCC countries would see the move as another sign of a U.S. tilt toward Iran and American disengagement from the Middle East, and will raise doubts about the credibility of the American security commitment. At home, such a move would be portrayed as a sign of weakness and appeasement of Iran.
Many of these negative reactions, however, are exaggerated and could be mitigated. The United States could reduce the blowback by doing several things: proposing a transition plan that would include seeking the agreement of other GCC partners to host American military assets removed from Bahrain; beefing up the U.S. naval presence in the Arabian Sea; conducting more exercises and rotational deployments in the region to reassure allies of America’s security commitments; and engaging in more serious joint contingency planning between the U.S. military and its GCC counterparts.
Moreover, while the Gulf states may initially close ranks behind Bahrain, it should not be assumed that their rancor would be intense or prolonged. Gulf rulers have an interest in keeping U.S. naval assets stationed in their region and they understand that there is no Russian, Chinese, or European alternative to the U.S. security guarantee. It is not out of the question that both Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates would be willing to host naval and air forces removed from Bahrain, and that their angry rhetoric over the decision would be aimed at extracting the best terms for hosting American forces on their territory.
It is uncertain whether U.S. pressure on Bahrain to reform would be successful. The king and some members of the ruling family see the Shia as an existential threat and believe that any compromise will eventually lead to their demise. They also count on the Saudis to come to the rescue if their backs are against the wall. It will be difficult for the U.S. to change this mindset, or the belief of many in the royal family that its scorched earth tactics can keep a lid on violence.
Moreover, even if Bahrain’s rulers decided on a more conciliatory approach with the opposition, striking a mutually acceptable bargain may be beyond reach. There is no interest in, or experience with, real power sharing in Bahrain and all politics is a zero-sum game. In addition, a fragmented Shia opposition has weakened its position by raising doubts among Bahraini hardliners that Al-Wefaq can deliver its constituents on any compromise negotiated with the ruling family.
Nonetheless, there may still be a glimmer of hope for national reconciliation. There are moderates in both the Shia and Sunni camps who are still prepared to reach a mutually acceptable accommodation with the government. Not all Shia advocate one man, one vote, and some have called for a constitutional monarchy, not a republic. Not all Sunnis are hardline regime loyalists or anti-Shia. There are members of the ruling family, such as the crown prince, who recognize the vital need to address grievances in real and sustainable ways for the sake of long-term security. But time is short for these few people to find their spine.
Inaction is also risky. American support for the royal family’s strategy of hunkering down only legitimizes its view that the government cannot give an inch to its citizens for fear of assisting Iran. However, the opposite is true: If the government ignores legitimate grievances and continues its efforts to crush the opposition, disaffected Shia (and Sunnis unhappy with conditions in the kingdom) are likely to become more militant, providing Iran with greater opportunities for meddling. And if Washington fails to secure a soft landing for the Fifth Fleet elsewhere in the region, it could be forced to pull its forces out of Bahrain in a precipitous manner that Iran and America’s enemies in the region could portray as a humiliating defeat. In the event of a hasty retreat, the U.S. will be in a much weaker bargaining position in negotiating new military and cost-sharing arrangements with other Gulf states.
There is no doubt great resistance within the U.S. government to rocking the boat with Bahrain. However, the next few months provide an opportunity for the Obama administration to test the waters. It should require the Defense Department to report to Congress on contingency planning to leave Bahrain, including options to fund the costs of relocation. This step would send a strong signal to the Bahrainis that it is not going to be business as usual.
An unstable ally is of little value to the United States. It is both necessary and possible to construct a different American force posture for the Persian Gulf that better protects U.S. regional interests over the next decade, with fewer risks and costs. The government of Bahrain is driving toward a cliff with its foot on the accelerator. The United States should not go along for the ride.