Thursday, March 17, 2011

Mixed Signals

Anyone who is interested enough in Bahraini politics to visit this site already knows about the sad events of the previous two days, so there is no need to review things here.

Instead, it is worth spending a moment to review the U.S.'s difficult-to-comprehend response to the situation in Bahrain. In short, its reaction has followed the same model that has become familiar and near-comical since the first days of protest in Tunisia: the U.S. supports whomever it thinks has the best chance to come out on top that day, changing its position almost hourly depending on new developments. (Indeed, for this overt political pragmatism the leaders of Egypt's revolution refused to meet with Clinton during her visit to Cairo yesterday.)

First, we have the luke-warm response of the U.S. to the start of protests in Bahrain.

Then, on March 12, Defense Secretary Gates pays a visit, stating bluntly in a press conference that he told Bahraini leaders "that baby steps probably would not be sufficient... that real reform would be necessary," presumably via the U.S.-backed "national dialogue" initiative of the crown prince.

Fast-forward two days and Saudi/GCC forces are crossing over the causeway into Bahrain. Rather than condemn or even express ambivalence about the action, instead Hillary Clinton meets with the UAE Foreign Minister in Paris in what appears to be a show of support. (At least it was portrayed as such on al-Jazeera and al-'Arabiyyah.) Here is a video of the press conference following the meeting. Everyone seems very happy.

So one of two things must be true: either (1) Gates' visit to Bahrain was not coincidental, and he was there at least partly to discuss the possibility/inevitability of a Saudi/GCC intervention; or (2) the U.S. was caught entirely by surprise and simply hadn't decided upon an official reaction prior to Clinton's meeting in Paris.

Because now it seems that we are not so supportive of the Saudi/GCC intervention after all. The Bahrainis and Saudis, as of March 16 anyway, are "on the wrong track," again according to Clinton. And later on Wednesday Obama took time out from NCAA bracket-filling to personally call Kings 'Abdallah and Hamad to "stress[] the need for maximum restraint." The Bahraini response was to round up all six main opposition leaders -- include the Sunni head of one of the groups, Wa'ad, that was ostensibly going to take part in the "national dialogue" initiative -- in pre-dawn raids. (Here are some nice photos from the home of al-Wafa' leader 'Abd al-Wahhab Hussain.) The message for restraint, then, may have been lost in translation.

In short, the mixed signals sent by the U.S., not only in Bahrain but over the course of the past two months more generally, are exposing it as a fickle ally. The only place it has taken a strong stand, Libya, is the place where it seems government opponents have the least chance of prevailing (though obviously Bahraini protesters face very long odds as well). So the one case where the U.S. has made its choice of winner clear, it has chosen incorrectly.

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