Trouble with Bahrain

As home to more than 7,000 U.S. military personnel and to the U.S. Fifth Fleet and Naval Central Command, Bahrain has been an ally of the United States for decades. Yet the Government of Bahrain is increasingly proving itself to be  undependable and erratic  – putting the long-term viability of our presence in the country at risk.

Two weeks ago, Bahraini government officials announced the expulsion of Tom Malinowski, the U.S. assistant secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor as he was making an official visit.

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The Government of Bahrain declared Malinowski as “unwelcome” and accused him of interfering in the internal affairs of the country.  His only crime was meeting with Bahrain opposition leaders inside the U.S. Embassy without the presence of a Bahraini Foreign Ministry official. 

This unprecedented decision – to publicly expel one of our nation’s top diplomats without warning – calls into question how much we can count on the Government of Bahrain as a dependable ally.

Coupled with an erratic host government, the deteriorating political and security situation in Bahrain also threatens the long-term viability of the U.S. presence in the country.

There has been a clear and steady increase in instability and violence in the country since widespread pro-democracy protests erupted in 2011. Regular warnings issued by the State Department declare growing swaths of the country as “off-limits” to U.S. service members and their families amid reports of regular, violent clashes between protesters and police. The absence of meaningful political reforms to address Bahrainis’ underlying frustrations only makes the potential for increased unrest more acute.

Because of this increased volatility in Bahrain, I offered an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act earlier this year requiring Secretary Hagel to assess the security situation in Bahrain and the threat of increased instability and violence to U.S. military assets and personnel stationed in the country. It also required the Department to report on a contingency plan for U.S. naval personnel and their families should the American presence in Bahrain become untenable.

The Fifth Fleet – as a nerve center for U.S. maritime presence in the Gulf – is a critical element of our capacity to protect U.S. national security interests in the region.  The development of contingency planning for U.S. personnel is not only in line with the U.S. military’s routine practice of maintaining a wide range of contingency plans to address potential threats with national security implications, but it is imperative in the event that instability in Bahrain becomes severe enough to jeopardize U.S. assets and personnel.

After Bahrain openly expelled a senior U.S. official visiting the country, I believe that my proposal for contingency planning warrants further discussion. The island is becoming more unstable, and the ruling family that governs it is becoming less predictable.  With much of the region in chaos, we must ensure our naval assets are sustainably secured through examining a range of alternative options in the Gulf. Ignoring the warning signs in Bahrain now would be a dangerous miscalculation, and a risk we cannot afford to take.   

Johnson has represented Georgia's 4th Congressional District since 2007. He sits on the Armed Services and the Judiciary committees.