Navy's Fifth Fleet key to stability in Gulf, Bahrain



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It is also true that a strong U.S. military, and particularly Navy, will remain essential in that part of the world and will continue to be debated in Congress and with the Administration in the weeks and months ahead, regardless of the outcome of the presidential election.

With this in mind and knowing what happened last year in Bahrain, I cannot help but worry about further turmoil or riots escalating in a country I feel I know so well. I was the first three-star U.S. Navy commander to be assigned to the region after the first Iraq War and know how volatile and dynamic the environment there can be. Even more, I see how important Bahrain is to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and to protecting Arab and American interests in that part of the world.

Regrettably, unrest continues in Bahrain and it raises serious questions. What would happen if the ruling Al Khalifa family is forced to step down? They have ruled the island kingdom since the 19th century. Would chaos result and set off instability throughout the Gulf? Would the Fifth Fleet be forced to leave? And if it were to happen, would any other moderate GCC state be willing to host a long-term American military presence? If the U.S. Navy and other forces were to depart the Gulf, who would be there to ensure the flow of oil and other commodities through the critical choke point of the Strait of Hormuz, where the Gulf meets the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean? Would Iran dominate and threaten shipping as well as block energy exports and reserves? These are difficult questions that are hard to answer, but must be addressed; the outcomes have severe global ramifications.

The U.S. has been working to maintain a peaceful co-existence in the region since sending naval forces to Bahrain in 1949. From that time on, the Kingdom has played a major role in Gulf security and stability, and has remained a close ally and friend ever since.

It was during my tour of duty in Bahrain from 1992 to 1994 that I first came to know then Crown Prince, now King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, and his son, Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the present Crown Prince. I was fortunate to see them often then, and meet with numerous other government ministers, including the Minister of Defense, who remains in that role and is still a friend. All of these leaders, then and now, continue to express a sincere commitment to ensuring that every Bahraini is able to make progress, prosper and develop personally regardless of sect or religious affiliation.

I have watched the demonstrations with growing concern. I have seen overreactions on the part of the Bahrain Security Forces, and observed strident rhetoric followed by uncontrolled violence generated by the radical opposition. Many innocent civilians, demonstrators and policemen have been killed and injured. Bahrain has witnessed unprecedented violence and divisions that I would not have thought possible in the 1990s or even after my last visit there in 2009. This is not the Bahrain I know.

As I traveled there in late spring of this year, I did get the feeling that the government was trying to move toward a more democratic structure that will provide greater opportunity, stability and internal harmony for all Bahrainis. The process is slow and uneven but there is movement. The Kingdom is one of our strongest allies and it is in our own interest to support a continued friendship even as we press for and encourage their move toward democratic reform.                       

During my recent visit, I met with the king and the crown prince, and we talked, not only about old times, but the present unrest and their vision for the future. I know the King to be a strong leader and that was even more apparent during our conversation. I do think the demonstrations of a year and a half ago surprised him and he regrets the violence that resulted on both sides. He understands the need to play an essential role in maintaining a balance between the conflicting interests. I am convinced he is also making every effort to meet all the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) recommendations, even while acknowledging they cannot happen as quickly as many would like.

As for the years ahead, I find it difficult to believe that the Al Khalifa ruling family will be forced to step down or that the Fifth Fleet will leave Bahrain or the Gulf; both are too important to ensuring peace in the region, open sea lanes and the containment of Iran’s hegemonic ambitions.

Katz is a retired vice admiral and was commander of what is today the Fifth Fleet.