False trade-off on Bahrain

ADVERTISEMENT
The latest Department of State “Fact Sheet” on U.S. policy towards Bahrain, written a year after the president’s speech, describes the importance of Bahrain’s military ties with the United States, including hosting of the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet,  and economic relations, including the 2006 U.S. Bahrain Free Trade Agreement before stating “the U.S. has urged the Government of Bahrain to implement the full range of the Bahraini Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) recommendations and take steps to implement additional reforms.”

It may be that behind the scenes American diplomats and military officers are doing important work to support Bahrain’s movement towards greater democracy, but our stated  priorities and our understanding of the leverage in the relationship are inverted.

First, priorities: The growth of democracy and rule of law-based political systems that respect and protect the rights of citizens are in the fundamental long-term U.S. national interest; shorter term military and economic cooperative arrangements should be secondary and supportive.

Second, leverage: Bahrain needs the United States, from both the security and economic points of view, more than the United States needs Bahrain.
These fundamental realities do not mean that the United States can or should expect Bahrain to transform itself instantly into the only Arab constitutional democracy in the Persian Gulf. The course of events in other Arab countries, the bitter and deadly Shia-Sunni conflicts we have seen in the region, and the influence of Saudi Arabia are all important factors. Cautionary examples from 1979 Iran through 2003 Iraq, 2012 Libya and 2013 Egypt are reason for moving with understanding, care and skill in supporting democratic transitions. However, the Arab Awakening is equally cautionary in showing what happens when the United States is selective in its support for the universal human aspirations for democracy and dignity. We should on balance be true to our fundamental values rather than denying them to others in favor of short term military and business concerns.

Nor do these fundamental realities mean that the United States should threaten or abandon Bahrain. Close cooperation with the United States for security reasons has contributed to democratic transitions in many countries, from The Republic of Korea through Taiwan to Turkey, Spain and Egypt. We should remain engaged with Bahrain, working persistently and patiently for peaceful democratic change.

There are several specific actions the United States can take to put its interests where its values are.

The Fifth Fleet headquarters should be moved back on board a flagship, as it was until 1993. This is an expensive proposition at a time when the defense budget is being reduced, but it is necessary. Permanent basing in a repressive Bahrain undermines our support for reform and is vulnerable if instability continues.

American diplomats and NGOs should encourage moderate leaders within the Bahraini government and moderate leaders in the opposition to identify and support step-by-step adoption of the BCI recommendations. U.S. leverage with both sides should be used to prevent suspicious hard-liners from blocking any progress.

American military officers should use their personal and professional influence to convince their Bahraini counterparts that a peaceful and gradual transition to a constitutional democratic monarchy is in Bahrain’s best long-term interest.

The United States should gain Saudi support for gradual democratic reforms in Bahrain. This is heavy lifting, given the role of the Kingdom in repressing Bahrain’s uprising. However success would remove a threat to Saudi Arabia’s own stability.

Both President Obama and President Bush have declared American support for democratic transition in the Middle East, but neither administration has developed effective means to help achieve it. For too long has the United States acted as if it must choose between its interests  and its values, in the end advancing neither. There are skillful, knowledgeable and experienced Americans in our diplomatic corps, our armed forces, and civil society organizations. With the correct policy guidance, they can help Bahrainis make the transition to a democratic and just constitutional monarchy that is in both its own long-term interest and ours.

Blair is a member of the Board of Trustees of Freedom House and former Director of National Intelligence and Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Command.