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Time to Affect Political Change in Bahrain

Michael Rubin makes a good point about the attractiveness of the Moroccan model–meaning gradual liberal reform in the direction of democracy. That is certainly preferable to the kind of upheavals that have rocked the Arab world this year. Even successful revolutions (as in Egypt) can go off in uncertain directions. In the case of Egypt, civil liberties remain restricted, anti-Israel sentiment is running rampant, and the Muslim Brotherhood appears poised to gain a disproportionate share of power because it is better organized than liberal groups. Some of this was no doubt unavoidable in any post-Mubarak regime (any Egyptian government that reflects popular sentiment will be anti-Israel to some degree) but the chaotic conditions which have prevailed since Mubarak’s abrupt removal from power have exacerbated the situation.

It was precisely to ward off such an explosion that some of us had been arguing for years the U.S. needed to do more to pressure Hosni Mubarak to open up the political system—for instance, by conditioning U.S aid on reform. Instead, one administration after another gave this strongman a blank check even though it was perfectly clear he could not last forever.

Unfortunately, the U.S. appears to be repeating that mistake in Bahrain. This tiny Gulf kingdom, where a Sunni royal family rules over a predominantly Shiite population, managed to repress calls for change by using force earlier this year; it even got assistance from the Saudi security forces. The royals also promised all sorts of political changes which have not materialized. The National Dialogue which they convened to assuage calls for change has turned out to be a joke. Repression remains the order of the day. But as in Syria, even the willingness of the security forces to shed blood has not kept protesters off the streets. As the New York Times notes, clashes between demonstrators and head-cracking riot police still occur almost every night.

Where, one wonders, is the U.S? We have a large say in Bahrain, which is the headquarters of our Fifth Fleet and is heavily dependent on American protection.

“But,” as the Washington Post editorialists note, “the Obama administration has been timid here as elsewhere during the Arab Spring. In May, President Obama made a strong statement about Bahrain during a speech on the Middle East in which he promised to support the cause of democratic change across the region. But there has been no follow-up; no senior U.S. officials have visited Bahrain in months, and the administration has had nothing to say about the deteriorating situation. This is shortsighted: If Bahrain blows up, vital U.S. interests will be at risk. The administration should use its influence now —before the crisis resumes.”

The Post is exactly right: Now—before the next revolution–is the time to affect positive political change in Bahrain, and also in other American allies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. The U.S. needs to use what leverage it has to push for liberal change a la Morocco. Failure to do so is not
only a moral failing, but more important, a strategic failing that risks another explosion toppling another American ally.

 


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