Nowhere in the Arab world today does the Obama administration face a policy dilemma more vexing as it does toward Bahrain.
Bahrain is important to American geopolitical interests in the region. It is the host of America’s largest naval base in the Persian Gulf and it is also considered a bulwark against Iranian influence in the region. For that latter reason it is also a staunch ally (some would say client) of its neighbor, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, of course, is also a long time American ally and major oil supplier.
So, on one side of the ledger for American policy on Bahrain you have: 1) oil interests 2) a huge military base 3) a geopolitical ally to help contain Iran. On the other side, you have American commitment to human rights and democracy. Amidst a particularly brutal crackdown against activists since February, it would not be a stretch to believe that hard security interests have, so far, outweighed human rights in developing American policy on Bahrain.
Several dozen people have been killed; several hundred brutalized; and the opposition has been completely decimated. (The top UN Human Rights Official says 1,000 people have been imprisoned, which is a massive figure considering the entire population of Bahrain is only about 500,000). Yet, so far, the Obama administration has only issued some mild rebuke. It has not implemented any punitive measures against the Bahraini regime to demonstrate that it is truly supportive of the legitimate aspirations of the protest movement.
This shows which side the Obama administration is on–and, unfortunately, it is not the side of history. With the speech today, Obama has the opportunity to chart a new course.
Bahrain is the perfect proving ground to see whether or not this speech offers a meaningful re-balance of American policy in the region toward human rights and democracy.