November 16, 2013

THE CONSEQUENCES of President Obama’s decision this fall to radically restrict U.S. ambitions in the Middle East are becoming apparent across the region. In Syria, dictator Bashar al-Assad is besieging more than 200,000 civilians in the same Damascus suburbs that he attacked with sarin gas in August; credible reports say children are starving. But Mr. Assad no longer fears a U.S. reaction: Mr. Obama has ruled out intervention in “someone else’s civil war.”

In Egypt, the regime of Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi just put deposed president Mohamed Morsi on trial, and it is holding thousands of other political prisoners. Yet any danger of a lasting rift with Washington was dissolved by Mr. Obama’s announcement at the United Nations that his administration would focus on four “core interests” in the Middle East, including the flow of oil but not the defense of democracy.

Then there is the emirate of Bahrain, another U.S. ally whose reaction to Mr. Obama’s retreat may be the most dramatic — but least noticed — in the region. The host of the U.S. 5th Fleet, Bahrain is linked to a couple of Mr. Obama’s “core interests,” including the safe passage of oil through the Persian Gulf. But its autocratic rulers, the al-Khalifa clan, also have been the target of one of the Arab uprisings that began in early 2011.

When the regime responded to peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations with repression, Mr. Obama publicly scolded the al-Khalifas and called for a dialogue with the opposition. In that May 2011 speech, he said the United States must broaden its traditional Mideast priorities to include the promotion of freedom. Bahrain’s rulers quickly responded, launching a commission to investigate the unrest and promising numerous reforms. But when the process bogged down, the administration didn’t react: Instead, it renewed military sales that had been suspended.

Since Mr. Obama’s U.N. address in September, which reversed his May 2011 words, the Bahraini regime has abandoned all pretense of compromise. Since the end of September, nearly 140 opposition activists have been sentenced to prison terms, including many nonviolent politicians and human rights activists. The two top leaders of the moderate al-Wefaq party, which agreed this year to join a government-sponsored political dialogue, are being prosecuted on trumped-up charges. The latest to be brought to court, Wefaq Secretary General Sheikh Ali Salman, was accused of “disparaging the interior ministry” after he organized an exhibition documenting human rights abuses.

In keeping with Mr. Obama’s new policy, the administration has ignored the Bahraini crackdown. As the president put it, “the United States will at times work with governments that do not meet, at least in our view, the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests.” In the short term that may smooth the way for the 5th Fleet. As for the longer-term consequences, Mr. Obama’s 2011 speech spelled them out:

“A strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of these interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind. Moreover, failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our interests at their expense.”