April 13, 2012

WHILE THE U.N. Security Council focuses on Syria, another conflict between an autocratic Arab regime and a popular opposition is slowly worsening. Violence in Bahrain, a Persian Gulf emirate, has killed only a few score in the last year, compared with more than 9,000killed in Syria. But in many respects its uprising resembles that of Syria: The ruling al-Khalifa family, from the Sunni minority, has repeatedly promised, and failed to deliver, political reforms to empower the long-repressed Shiite majority.

Between them, Syria and Bahrain are revealing about Middle East politics. Saudi Arabia, which has led the calls for democratic regime change in Sunni-majority Syria, sent troops to back up the Bahraini autocracy last year. Shiite Iran, which is the strongest defender of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, is calling for democracy in Bahrain.

The United States ought to provide the exception to this sectarian cynicism. President Obama has pledged to support democratic transitions across the region and, in several speeches, has called for reform in Bahrain as well as in Syria. But the administration also has its pragmatic interests: Bahrain is a close military ally, the host of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet and a key partner in the U.S. strategy for repelling potential Iranian aggression in the Persian Gulf.

The administration has consequently soft-pedaled its calls for change in Bahrain, supporting not regime change nor democracy but “a genuine dialogue leading to meaningful reforms,” as a White House statement on Wednesday put it. Washington’s leverage probably explains some of the regime’s more conciliatory actions, such as the appointment of an independent commission last year that reported on abuses by the security forces and recommended reforms. Still, the regime’s slowness to enact meaningful change and continued persecution of opponents have led the political situation to worsen, rather than improve. In two alarming episodes this week, an improvised explosive device attack on a police checkpoint was followed by the ransacking of a Shiite-owned shopping center by a Sunni mob.

A prime example of the regime’s self-defeating policies is the continued imprisonment of 14 opposition leaders who were arrested last April, charged with treason and given life sentences after a trial that international observers called grossly unfair. One of them, human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, has been on a hunger strike since Feb. 8; last week, as his condition worsened, he was transferred to a prison hospital. Mr. al-Khawaja holds Danish as well as Bahraini citizenship, yet the government has rejected appeals for his transfer to Denmark by that country’s prime minister as well as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Meanwhile, his imprisonment is inspiring demonstrations that have been met with heavy-handed police repression.

To its credit, the White House statement condemned “the use of excessive force and indiscriminate use of tear gas against protesters.” It also expressed concern for Mr. al-Khawaja and called on the government to “consider urgently all available options to resolve his case.” If those words are not heeded, U.S. credibility in a changing Middle East should require tangible consequences for U.S.-Bahraini relations.