Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Retribution

Amid mounting concern that U.S. military involvement in Libya—coalition or no coalition—may serve ultimately to harm rather than help America’s image in the Arab world, forgotten is the way that its inaction, its passive support for embattled governments (Bahrain and Yemen come first to mind), is working to elicit a similar sort of reaction.

In Bahrain, for example, until about a month ago government opponents tended to view the U.S. as a relative friend and ally. The U.S., I was often told while in Bahrain, is on principle a friend of ordinary citizens, whereas Britain, Bahrain’s second most important Western ally, leans more toward rulers. The U.S., founded on the basis of democracy and a revolt against an absolute monarchy, supports ordinary people when they are being mistreated by their government, it was said. And annual State Department reports on “The State of Human Rights in Bahrain” seemed to evidence such an orientation. Whether or not this feeling reflected reality, it was a common feeling nonetheless.

Of course, the cat is now out of the bag. If recent events in the Middle East have shown anything, it’s the patent disconnect between principle and action in U.S. Mideast foreign policy—or perhaps rather that, despite appearances, the principle was pragmatism all along.

And this revelation may do as much harm as any U.S. involvement in Libya.

The U.S. naval base in Bahrain, located in the historically-Shi'i village of Juffair, has never been the focus of much protest. Indeed, when it was decided last year that it would double in size in a $580 million expansion, there were no protests decrying "U.S. imperialism," "interference in Bahrain's internal affairs," and so on. In fact, the only actual reported threats to the facility have stemmed from Sunni Islamic groups operating in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Gulf affiliated (ostensibly) with al-Qa'ida. (Sure, the Iranians have threatened to attack the base in the event the U.S. would strike at its nuclear facilities. But this is a separate issue.)

Now, however, there are reports that pro-Shi'a groups outside of Bahrain are targeting U.S. forces and interests specifically in retaliation for its stance on Bahrain. Here, for example, we find a video posted by the Hizballah Brigades in Iraq, showing an attack on "an American stryker in Baghdad-Tajy," with the caption: "This attack and others to support the Bahrain revolution." The videos even show the Hizballah logo alongside the Bahrain flag. Separate videos document similar attacks on March 16 (titled "Rockets vs. Talil American base in Nasariyyah ... for supporting the Bahrain revolution") and March 19 ("vs American vehicle [in] Basra-Safwan").

The point is not that U.S. forces or interests in Bahrain are now somehow under threat, but that it does not require direct military intervention (as, for example, in Libya) to elicit a backlash against the United States. In the case of Bahrain, inaction can be as powerful as action.

With a new "Day of Rage" planned for this Friday in Bahrain, and accordingly the prospect of still more casualties and still less chance of substantive political reconciliation, the U.S. would do well to respond more quickly, clearly, and resolutely than it has to date.

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