Following months of unrest and an ever so slight uptick in international pressure, the Bahrain king initiated a national dialogue “to present the people’s views and demands for further reform in the country without any preconditions and with the consensus of all participants” in hopes of quelling any further domestic uprising. The topics included in the dialogue are politics, economy, society, and legislative. However, this dialogue has been met with skepticism and the leading opposition Shi’a party, al-Wefaq, after initially boycotting half of the dialogue, has just withdrawn entirely from the talks. This decision by al-Wefaq casts a dark shadow over the already dubious legitimacy of the national dialogue.
The national dialogue — which began even as dissidents, medical personnel, and human rights activists remain in jail, and as violence, torture, and killings continue throughout the country — is clearly designed to give the Bahraini government international cover in the hope that the popular unrest will dissolve. The U.S. government must use the leverage of the Fifth Fleet, currently based in Bahrain, as a tool to ensure that a credible result come from these talks. If nothing substantive occurs, as I suspect will happen, then the U.S. government must remove the Fifth Fleet entirely.
There is legitimate concern in the loss of the highly strategic Fifth Fleet base, and the subsequent impact on American worldwide force projection if this base were to change. On the surface, removing the Fifth Fleet may appear detrimental to American security interests, however Toby Jones of Rutgers University and Middle East Report has outlined many of the reasons why this is not the case. Jones’ bottom line is that the presence of the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain is entirely unnecessary and has allowed the Bahraini government and Saudi Arabia the military cover to redirect resources toward repressively shoring up their regimes' inherently weak domestic positions. The American military must not be used to provide cover for regimes to repress their people.
In addition to Jones’ reasons, the Fifth Fleet must be leveraged because it is in the Bahraini royal family’s best interest to begin the reform process. A rhetorical question best summarizes this interest: In 25 years, can you imagine an absolute monarchy remaining in power in the Middle East? Of course not, and of the numerous Bahrain experts asked this question, none envisioned this possibility. Has there been any better time to begin the transformation into a constitutional monarchy with a popularly elected, accountable, inclusive parliament and all the trappings of a modern democracy?
Another common reason cited for maintaining the Fleet is to keep Iranian interests from influencing fellow Shi’a within Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia. This idea has gained widespread currency among policymakers in Washington, despite a complete lack of evidence. In discussing this issue with several prominent Bahrain experts, not a single person has seen physical evidence of Iranian influence in the Bahraini protests. A Wikileaks cable written in 2008 explicitly noted the lack of evidence, since 1990, of Iranian “weapons or government money” in Bahrain. Surely if the evidence was available, the Bahraini government would not keep it a secret.
Finally, at least one (of two) sharp, deep-pocketed American PR firms, contracted by the Bahraini government, have released statements omitting critical comments by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemning the violence in Bahrain. These operations likely also understand the impact any Iranian link, actual or implied, would have in deflating any Congressional outrage to the Bahraini government’s violence.
The Bahraini government is not engaging in a credible national dialogue. The government has attempted to use scare tactics to tamp down on American outrage. It appears as if the royal family does not see any benefit to giving its population a voice in the affairs of their country. If the Bahraini government does not reform and the U.S. does not remove the Fifth Fleet from the country, then the U.S. will continue to send a strong signal that our short-term interests outweigh the very values upon which our country was founded.
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