MANAMA, Bahrain — Speaking to American sailors standing at attention on the deck of the USS Ponce, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel vowed on Friday that the United States would keep a robust military presence in the Persian Gulf and build stronger ties with the region’s Arab states, even as it pursues negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.
The service members, part of the Bahrain-based U.S. Fifth Fleet, were likely to be the secretary’s easiest audience during a three-day trip to this tiny gulf kingdom.
As the first U.S. Cabinet member to visit Bahrain since the spring of 2011, when popular revolts roiled the Arab world, Hagel waded into a region where the U.S. faces a tide of criticism. Bahrain’s pro-democracy activists charge that Washington has not done enough to curb the kingdom’s crackdown on dissidents from the country’s Shiite majority because it wants to safeguard a strategic alliance.
Gulf Sunni monarchs, meanwhile, are angered by Washington’s talks with Iran, a country they view as an existential threat. A six-month temporary accord with Tehran over its nuclear program, and the prospect of a permanent deal, have further strained relationships frayed by the robust support some Sunni states have given to Syrian rebels with ties to al-Qaeda.
Hagel appeared more interested in mollifying the monarchs than the protesters.
“I will assure our partners that we’re not going anywhere,” Hagel told troops aboard the Navy ship, one of several docked in Bahrain. He said U.S. officials were “clear-eyed” about the complexity of negotiating with Iran and remained committed to keeping a robust military deterrence architecture in a region he described as “dangerous, combustible and unstable.”
U.S. defense officials said Hagel intended to use his visit to Bahrain — where he is attending a yearly meeting of defense chiefs known as the Manama Dialogue — to counter the notion that America’s budget crisis and a renewed focus on Asia have made it an unreliable ally in the Middle East.
Hagel’s speech was crafted to underscore that the U.S. retains an “overwhelming” military footprint in the region, a senior defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the Pentagon’s goal of pushing back on what he called the “mythology of American retreat.” Hagel also intends to signal to Iran that the United States will not lower its defenses as it works toward a diplomatic breakthrough.
“We have a ground, air and naval presence of more than 35,000 military personnel in and immediately around the gulf,” the secretary’s speech said, according to a draft provided by U.S. officials. “Going forward, the Defense Department will place even more emphasis on building the capacity of our partners in order to complement our strong military presence in the region.”
Hagel’s speech provided a detailed rundown of U.S. military capabilities and assets in the region. He noted that the Army has kept more than 10,000 soldiers in the region following the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq, that there are 40 ships in the broader area and that the United States is in the midst of a $580 million expansion of the Fifth Fleet, which includes roughly 6,000 service members.
Hagel did not meet with members of the opposition, and his speech was expected to make only a brief note that the United States continues to support political reform in a region dominated by autocrats. Washington’s emphasis on democracy has waned since last year. U.S. officials attempted last year to compel Bahrain to reform its security forces and judiciary after a brutal crackdown on protesters and health-care workers who were prosecuted for treating wounded demonstrators.
After the 2011 crackdown, U.S. officials put intense pressure on the Bahraini government by “using military sales as leverage,” said a former senior U.S. official involved in Bahrain policy.
“But they walked away from the commitments they had made to make their society more inclusive, to reform police practices and to prosecute official abuse,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe what he came to see as a policy failure. “And as a result today, the human rights situation there continues to deteriorate.”
Protests in Bahrain are still commonplace, many leading to clashes with security forces. Khalid al-Marzooq, a senior opposition leader who was detained in September and charged with inciting violence through his activism, said in an interview that the government continues to crack down on dissent with impunity. The United States has monitored, and spoken out about, human rights abuses, he said, but the rhetoric has not been matched by substantive action.
“The U.S. should not build a relationship just with the ruling elite, but with the people,” said Marzooq, a senior member of the al-Wefaq political faction, who is barred from traveling abroad while he awaits trial. “There has to be a clear message from the Americans to the leadership here that they have to move into a more inclusive society, a more inclusive system.”
Hagel met with King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain on Friday and discussed “the importance of political inclusiveness for long term stability,” according to a U.S. readout of the meeting.