The Obama administration has repeatedly appealed to the Bahraini government for restraint, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton this week called for a political process that “advances the rights and aspirations of all the citizens of Bahrain.” But the administration has neither recalled its ambassador to Manama nor threatened the kinds of sanctions it imposed on Libya — a striking disparity that is fueling anti-U.S. sentiment among Bahraini opposition groups.
“Even though the American administration’s words are all about freedom and democracy and change, in Bahrain, the reality is that they’re basically a protection for the dictatorship,” said Zainab al-Khawaja, a prominent human-rights activist who began a hunger strike after her father, husband and brother-in-law were arrested at her apartment over the weekend.
U.S. officials privately acknowledge that the administration has been understated in its criticism of Bahrain, in part to avoid further strain in relations with Saudi Arabia, a vital U.S. ally and neighbor to the tiny island kingdom. The Saudis, fearing the rise of a pro-Iranian Shiite state on its eastern frontier, urged Bahrain to deal firmly with the throng of protesters that occupied a central square and blocked access to Manama’s main business district.
A month later, however, with Bahrain’s iron first tightening further, the White House is facing awkward questions from political allies as well as foes. A perceived U.S. double standard on Middle East democracy — a problem since the Arab spring movement began three months ago — could become more acute if Washington is seen to ignore widespread abuses, according to current and former diplomats and regional experts.
“We need to worry about the human-rights situation deteriorating there,” said Joel Rubin, a former Middle East specialist for the State Department and deputy director of the National Security Network, a Democratic-leaning foreign policy think tank. “It has a real impact on perceptions of American policy in the region.”
U.S. officials defend the administration’s ad hoc approach to Middle East democracy movements as prudent, saying each country requires a unique balancing of democratic ideals and compelling security interests.
“We don’t make decisions about questions like intervention based on consistency or precedent,” Denis R. McDonough, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said recently in explaining why U.S. policy on Libya differs from that on Bahrain. “We make them based on how we can best advance our interests in the region.”