To Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, all was well in Bahrain when she visited two months ago. "I am very impressed by the progress Bahrain is making on all fronts - economically politically, socially," she enthused.
Now, however, Bahrain is the only Persian Gulf state where the popular protests of Tunisia and Egypt have spread. On Monday and Tuesday, thousands demanding democracy gathered in the capital - and were attacked by riot police. So far, two have been killed.
Why is this happening in a country that had a parliamentary election in October, an election that Clinton called "free and fair"? The answer is simple: Bahrain, which is host to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, is not free. It is, rather, another Arab country where the Obama administration ignored popular unrest - and serious repression - in the interests of good relations with a friendly autocracy.
As in the case of Egypt, human rights groups have warned for some time that the administration's silence was dangerous. Last August, with the parliamentary election approaching, hundreds of suspected opposition activists were rounded up, and 23 leaders - including two clerics and a prominent blogger - were charged under anti-terrorism laws with trying to overthrow the government. A human rights group that planned to monitor the election was taken over by a government ministry.
"What we are seeing in Bahrain these days is a return to full-blown authoritarianism," Human Rights Watch said in a statement Oct. 20. The Obama administration "has failed to speak out about what has become a serious human rights crisis."
Not long afterward, the U.S. ambassador to Bahrain called for "respect for the rule of law." But any notion that the administration was taking the issue seriously was undone when Clinton said during her trip: "Yes, I mean people are arrested and people should have due process, and there should be the rule of law, and people should have good defense counsel. But on the other hand the election was widely validated . . . so you have to look at the entire picture." (The trial of the leaders continues; they remain in prison, and several have alleged they were tortured.)
"I see the glass as half full," Clinton declared. "I think the changes that are happening in Bahrain are much greater than what I see in many other countries in the region and beyond."
Evidently, a number of Bahrainis don't agree with that assessment. And once again the Obama administration may have to rush to catch up with an opposition movement that it underestimated - and a regime to which it gave too much credit.