The Post reports: “Bahrain’s king declared a state of emergency Tuesday, imposing a curfew, banning rallies and handing broad powers to a military bolstered by the fresh arrival of dozens of tanks sent by other Persian Gulf monarchies. ... The arrival of armor and the dispatch of Saudi troops reinforced a new hard line adopted by Bahrain’s ruling family in a bid to quash a month-long protest that continued Tuesday, with human rights advocates reporting hundreds injured.”

The three-month state of emergency is aimed at ending weeks of Shiite-led protests that Bahrain’s government has characterized as “‘increased lawlessness jeopardizing the lives of citizens.’” The Shiite-majority Iran objected to the foreign intervention, seeing a threat to opportunities to meddle. I asked new State Department spokesman Marc Toner what the United States was doing in response. He replied :

The United States is deeply concerned by rising tensions and increasing incidents of violence in Bahrain. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman is currently in Bahrain. He is working with our Embassy to reach out to Bahrainis from across the political spectrum to urge calm and promote peaceful dialogue aimed at ending violence, restoring calm, and initiating a meaningful and credible political reform process. He will be meeting with a wide range of government and non-governmental leaders, as well as maintain contact with officials from across the region, in order to support a made-in-Bahrain approach to the political, social, and economic challenges that Bahrain faces.

He added: “We continue to believe that Bahrainis need a made-in-Bahrain approach to the challenges they face. We note that reliance on security measures will not answer basic political questions and could easily exacerbate the situation. We call on all sides to avoid provocations.”

This statement is about all that is left for the United States — a plaintive call for a political resolution. The problem is that for two years, we have lacked an actual policy in the Middle East. With each sign of reticence other players step forward to defend their interests. The Saudis, understandably, can’t have a Shiite uprising on its border and has characterized Bahrain a “red line” for the Sunni kingdom. As one Middle East hand put it, “To them [the Saudis] this is a fundamental national security issue and they would not consult [with the U.S.]. They remain very mad at Obama for ‘abandoning Mubarak’ anyway.”

I spoke last night to Cliff May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He said that Bahrain “is particularly complicated because this administration does not have a policy.” The Obama team didn’t focus on democracy building, and when each uprising occurs the White House and State Department race to catch up. While it is in U.S. interests to promote democracy and human rights, May says, “Each country is different.”

In Bahrain we and the Saudis have strategic interests and the danger of Iranian mischief-making remains real. So, May argues, we should, albeit belatedly, be facilitating “movement away from totalitarianism ” and toward freer, more open societies that respect women’s rights and religious freedoms.

As for the Saudis, May surmises that “if they had assurance that Obama had this under control” they might not have felt compelled to act. But in the absence of an American presence, “they thought they had responsibility for Bahrain.They have a commitment to the Bahrainian royal family and a strategic interest.”

This episode exemplifies the danger of American timidity. As May put it, “Strong horses survive; weak ones go to the glue factory.” Middle East regimes that want to survive likely will rely on and follow U.S. advice less and less. Wars and territorial incursions may multiply. Meanwhile, Iran’s influence grows and those centrifuges keep spinning.