Politics & Policy

The Bahrain Dilemma

… eerily parallels that of Egypt. A U.S.-friendly foreign leader with a record of human-rights abuses now facing growing protests, in an area of key strategic interests. Mark Landler of the Times articulates the tight spot the Obama administration is in: 

 

For the second time in two weeks violence has broken out in a restive Arab ally of the United States, confronting the Obama administration with the question of how harshly to condemn a friendly leader who is resisting street protests against his government.

This time it is Bahrain, a postage-stamp monarchy in the Persian Gulf, where the United States Navy bases its Fifth Fleet. At least five people were killed early Thursday when heavily armed riot police officers fired shotguns and concussion grenades into a crowd occupying a traffic circle in the capital, Manama.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, on Thursday to “express deep concern about recent events,” a State Department official said. Mrs. Clinton urged “restraint moving forward” and pushed Sheik Khalid, a member of the royal family that rules Bahrain, to speed up a program of political and economic reforms.

But President Obama has yet to issue the blunt public criticism of Bahrain’s rulers that he eventually leveled against President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt — or that he has repeatedly aimed at Iran’s leaders. Such criticism would be an even sharper break for the United States than it was in the case of Egypt, since just two months ago Washington was holding up Bahrain as a model of reform for the region.

What the administration does with Bahrain is likely to be a telling indicator of how it will deal with the balance between protecting its strategic interests, and promoting democracy — a balance some critics said it never properly struck in its sometimes awkward response to the Egyptian turmoil. What will make this diplomatic maneuvering even more complicated is Bahrain’s proximity to Saudi Arabia, another Sunni monarchy with even greater strategic value to the United States.

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