Bahrain's crackdown threatens U.S. interests

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Friday, February 18, 2011

FOR A DECADE, the ruling al-Khalifa family of Bahrain has been claiming to be leading the country toward democracy - an assertion frequently endorsed by the United States. On Thursday, the regime demolished that policy and any pretense about its real, autocratic nature. It dispatched its security forces to assault and violently disperse peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators who were camped in Manama's Pearl Square. At least four people were killed and 230 injured in the predawn raid.

The brutality is unlikely to restore stability to the Persian Gulf nation, even in the short term - and it poses a direct threat to vital interests of the United States. The U.S. 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain and plays an important role in providing security to the Gulf and in containing nearby Iran. Not only is the crackdown likely to weaken rather than strengthen an allied government, but the United States cannot afford to side with a regime that violently represses the surging Arab demand for greater political freedom.

Bahrain is the first of the Arab world's monarchies to experience major unrest in what is becoming a region-wide upheaval - and with good reason. The Khalifa family and ruling elite, who are Sunni, preside over a population that is 70 percent Shiite, and the majority is disenfranchised, excluded from leading roles in the government or security forces. Ten years ago, the ruling family launched a cautious reform process, instituting a parliament with limited powers. But in the last year it has moved in reverse. Last summer two dozen Shiite opposition leaders were arrested and charged under terrorism laws. Many other activists were rounded up, and a human rights group was taken over by the government.

The Obama administration failed to react forcefully to those abuses, which set the stage for this week's uprising by thousands of demonstrators from both the Shiite and Sunni communities. In December, visiting Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton heaped praise on the government for "the progress it is making on all fronts" and minimized the political prosecutions, describing "the glass as half full."

On Thursday, Ms. Clinton rightly sent a very different message, calling the Bahraini foreign minister to convey "our deep concerns about the actions of the security forces" and urging the government to "return to a process that will result in real, meaningful changes for the people." That advice likely runs counter to what the Khalifas may hear from their biggest patron, Saudi Arabia, which is connected to the island nation by a causeway and participated in the suppression of a Shiite uprising in the 1990s. But the American interest here is clear: to press the Bahraini government to cease its repression and undertake meaningful political and economic reforms - before it is too late.


© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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