August 4, 2011

The political crisis in Bahrain appears to have subsided, even if the issues that provoked it remain unresolved. Now, the challenge before Washington is redefining the terms on which it deals with an important but seriously tarnished ally.

Bahrain is a major center of U.S. military operations and strategic commitment. It houses the headquarters of the Navy’s Fifth Fleet and is a prolific purchaser of American military equipment. A recent Congressional Research Service report found that the United States has undertaken a $580 million expansion of naval and air-base facilities there. In 2002 the island nation was officially designated a “major non-NATO ally,” putting it in an exclusive group of U.S. friends that includes Israel, Japan and Australia.

Small as it is, Bahrain is nevertheless an important link in the security network that the United States has been trying to build in the gulf — so much so that Bahrain’s neighbors, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, sent troops there in the spring when a domestic uprising threatened the al-Khalifa regime. The Web site of U.S. Central Command, which covers the gulf region, is replete with news and statements about military cooperation with Bahrain and joint operations.

U.S. defense ties to Bahrain were formalized in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, in which Bahrain supported the United States. Washington and Bahrain signed a 10-year defense agreement in 1991. The pact was renewed for another 10 years in 2001, a schedule that would have brought it up for renewal in October.

Throughout 2011, the United States has been criticized in the region this year for what is perceived as a tepid and contradictory policy toward the various Arab uprisings. This would have been an inconvenient, and perhaps embarrassing, moment to renew military relations with a regime that drew worldwide criticism in March for the repressive tactics it used to quell a domestic uprising — a test of the Obama administration’s struggle to balance security concerns with human rights and the promotion of democracy.

One might think this would have been an important agenda item when President Obama met with Bahrain’s crown prince, Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, in June. But nothing was said.

That, it turns out, is because President George W. Bush and Bahrain’s regime in 2002 secretly added five years to the defense pact’s term, extending its expiration date to October 2016. There have been no renewal negotiations because none have been needed.

The terms of the extension have never been made public. The agreement’s existence is classified. Not even Congressional Research Service analysts, who write detailed reports for Congress and often have access to classified material, were aware. A comprehensive CRS report on the situation last month said flatly that the defense pact would be up for renewal in October. In effect, White House secrecy on this issue put the research service in the position of reporting misleading information to Congress.

From a security perspective, it is just as well that the Obama administration does not have to decide now whether to renew the pact. This is hardly a propitious moment to disrupt a crucial strategic arrangement in the gulf: The United States is withdrawing from Iraq, Yemen is in turmoil, Saudi Arabia seems disillusioned with U.S. policy, the perceived threat from Iran is unabated, and new tensions may be developing between Iraq and Kuwait.

But maintaining the relationship amounts to a strategic partnership with a regime that drew global criticism — including from Washington — in March for its brutality, for jailing peaceful demonstrators and for prosecuting medical personnel whose offense was to help wounded victims of the security forces.

Bahrain and nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council that sent troops to support the regime “are on the wrong track,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at the time.

Last month Human Rights Watch denounced the al-Khalifa regime in unequivocal language: “Since mid-March 2011 Bahrain has been carrying out a punitive and vindictive campaign of violent repression against its own citizens. This fierce repression has been characterized by widespread arbitrary arrests, credible allegations of torture and ill-treatment, apparently coerced televised ‘confessions,’ unfair trials, and attacks on healthcare professionals and injured protesters, as well as politically-motivated mass dismissals of workers from jobs and students from university.”

The U.S. position could become untenable if Bahrain descends into mass violence or if public sentiment turns against the U.S. presence and American personnel are endangered. Bahrain’s government is seeking a balance that will keep the regime in power, mollify its opponents and sanitize its human rights record. President Obama and his advisers are gambling that Crown Prince Salman, 41, who is viewed as a moderate and a modernizer, can be the architect of that formula. It is in the interests of both Washington and Manama to encourage his quest and hope for success.

Thomas W. Lippman is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and author of the forthcoming book “Saudi Arabia on the Edge,” which is to be published in January.