U.S. May Lose Either Way In Bahrain Crisis

Posted on 16 March 2011 by hashimilion

Reporting from Washington As a standoff between troops and protesters in Bahrain teeters near violence, the Obama administration is facing a difficult choice between maintaining support for an increasingly unpopular monarchy or pushing for change that could weaken the U.S. strategic position in the vital Persian Gulf.

Administration officials have been struggling for a month to persuade Bahrain’s royal family and its Saudi backers of the need to enact political reforms in the island nation that would offer greater standing to the impoverished Shiite majority but also keep the Sunni royal family in power. Jeffrey Feltman, the chief U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, arrived in Bahrain on Monday for a new round of talks.

But Bahrain’s decision to invite in hundreds of Saudi troops on Monday signaled that the two governments have grown impatient with the U.S. approach and are focused on reasserting control over the streets. Much of the Bahraini opposition, meanwhile, has spurned the monarchy’s American-backed offer of a dialogue and remains suspicious of the government’s intentions.

The hardening of the two sides’ positions suggests that the Obama administration may face a setback no matter how the crisis is resolved. If the Bahrainis suppress the protesters, the United States may be seen as siding with an autocrat against his people. If the government falls and the Shiite majority takes control — which appears to be the less likely outcome — Washington will lose a key ally and Shiite-led Iran may gain one.

U.S. officials acknowledge that they are worried about the increasingly sectarian cast of the conflict, which deepened when the troops of Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and police forces from the Sunni-led United Arab Emirates entered the island kingdom.

On Tuesday, Iran sharpened the tensions, condemning Bahrain for inviting the Saudi troops. Bahrain recalled its ambassador to Iran and complained that Tehran was meddling.

U.S. officials are trying to avert a struggle between Shiites and Sunnis that could spread, potentially threatening the stability of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

The Obama administration is taking pains not to alienate the Bahrainis, who provide a home for the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, or the Saudis, a strategic partner on oil, counter-terrorism and regional diplomacy, such as the containment of Iran.

Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, said the administration already is perceived as supporting the Bahraini and Saudi governments’ approach, a perception that would be strengthened if the protests were snuffed out.

As the Saudi troops moved in this week, “the perception on the street has been, ‘This would not be happening without U.S. support,’ ” he said.

The White House stepped up its criticism of the military intervention Tuesday but stopped short of condemning Saudi Arabia.

“There is no military solution to the problems in Bahrain,” Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council, said in a statement. “A political solution is necessary, and all sides must now work to produce a dialogue that addresses the needs of all of Bahrain’s citizens.”

Despite the cautious U.S. language, the crisis comes at a time when the historically close American relationships with the Saudi and Bahraini governments are under stress.

Saudi King Abdullah was angry with the Obama administration for pushing former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign in February. Saudi officials also have been displeased that the White House has prodded them to accelerate their own reforms, a process they insist cannot be rushed because of the kingdom’s change-resistant clergy.

The Saudis appear to have again signaled their displeasure this month, cancelling planned visits to the kingdom by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. Saudi officials said the king was too ill, but U.S. officials acknowledged that the recent tensions may have prompted the move.

The Saudis, like the Bahrainis and other governments of the Gulf Cooperation Council, also are “angry that Washington has let staunch allies such as President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt be forced from power, while doing little to push Col. Moammar Kadafi of Libya from his position,” wrote Simon Henderson, a specialist on the Arabian Peninsula at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Last month, U.S. officials said the Saudis were supportive of their plans for political change in Bahrain, and appeared willing to provide massive financial aid to help relieve the poverty of its Shiite population. But the Saudi government changed course as the protests continued and the opposition’s demands increased.

On Saturday, Gates had made a public appearance in Bahrain and called for an acceleration of the reform effort, saying “baby steps” weren’t enough.

Two days later, Bahraini authorities asked the Saudis to send military help.

Pentagon officials said Gates had no advance notice of the move. In a clear sign of the Saudi willingness to ignore U.S. advice, State Department officials said they were “advised but not consulted” on the intervention.

With the political complexion of Egypt’s new government uncertain, it may become even more important to the United States to be able to rely on its partnership with Saudi Arabia.

But “there are clear signs that a Washington-Riyadh rift is emerging,” said Ayham Kamel of the Eurasia Group risk analysis firm.

LA Times

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