But U.S. officials pointedly have not condemned a decision by Saudi Arabia and other neighbors to send tanks and troops into Bahrain, or Bahrain’s subsequent declaration of a state of emergency. In television interviews with CNN and CBS, Clinton said the intervening countries were merely “on the wrong track” and urged Bahrain’s rulers and the demonstrators to resume negotiations — a prospect that seemed highly remote as the crisis escalated.
The disparate reactions underscore the Obama administration’s reluctance to take a hard line with the Gulf monarchies, historically among the United States’ most steadfast allies in the Arab world. While the administration ultimately decided that the Washington-friendly presidents who ruled Egypt and Tunisia were expendable, analysts say, it appears to have concluded that it needs the kings to stay on their thrones, even if that means the silencing of those seeking freedom.
“We’re seeing what U.S. policy really is about now. It’s not about democracy, it’s not about regime change,” said Shadi Hamid, director of the Brookings Doha Center, a Qatar-based branch of the Washington think tank. “When we’re talking about the Gulf, it’s a whole different ballgame. The U.S. wants these regimes to reform and to see some changes, but it does not want to see them fall.”
Bahrain is a tiny archipelago of only 1.2 million people, but for decades it has served as the home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. The ruling family has also functioned as a Sunni Muslim bulwark against Iranian influence in the Gulf; U.S. and Saudi officials fear that could change if the Bahraini monarchy is overthrown by demonstrators, who, like Iranians, are predominantly Shiites.
Critics have accused the Obama administration of treading gingerly with the House of Saud for similar reasons. In addition to its resolutely anti-Iranian stance on most issues, Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s biggest exporters of oil.
Elsewhere, U.S. officials have recently offered fulsome praise for the kings of Morocco and Jordan, two key allies on counter-terrorism. The Obama administration has also continued to embrace the sultan of Oman and oil-rich emirs in the Gulf. While those monarchies have seen some public protests, demonstrations have been generally reserved.
U.S. officials and analysts said the Obama administration doesn’t put Arab monarchs in a different category than other Arab rulers, but instead makes an independent assessment of U.S. interests in each country. They noted that Washington is afraid of what might follow if Yemenis toppled President Ali Abdullah Saleh — another ally on counter-terrorism — but would cheer if protesters turned up the heat on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a longtime nemesis.