Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Bahraini Time Bomb

You guessed it: another failed op-ed. Having so many rejected is sort of nice, though, since it gives this blog a few more polished articles to go along with the rest. But I'm not sure how many more I'll bother writing.

The idea of this particular piece was to attempt to make the argument on "national interest" grounds that the U.S. reluctance to push for reform in Bahrain in order to remain friends with the Arab Gulf states in fact is helping instead to erode its influence among them, who on account of the Bahrain crisis and presumed need to counter "Iranian interference" are increasingly exerting their independence and propelling the region toward what has recently been called (in a great article last Saturday in the Wall Street Journal) the "new Mideast Cold War."

In addition, you may wish to read also this new piece in the Christian Science Monitor that I helped inform.

Finally, you may take this as the counter-point to King Hamad's (or one of his advisers') op-ed today in the Washington Times. No wonder it seems impossible to get anything printed. (Here's a link to my comment on the article.)

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The Bahraini Time Bomb

Bahrain is simmering. Syria is revolting. Libya continues fighting. Yemen is dissolving. Yet, in what is arguably the most far-reaching of the many geo-political transformations to emerge in these four months of the Arab Spring, the oil-rich Arab Gulf is uniting—and no longer under U.S. patronage.

Increasingly worried by what it sees as a belligerent Iran and a virtual Iran Jr. in Shi‘a-dominated Iraq, the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council has begun to turn inward, and to flex its military muscle, to an extent unprecedented since the bloc’s 1981 founding in the wake of the Islamic Revolution. At the same time, alarmed by the Obama administration’s unceremonious about-face with long-time ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the GCC and particularly Saudi Arabia is beginning to reevaluate its strategic partnership with the United States. The result is a wholesale political realignment of the Middle East that cuts primarily across sectarian lines, and one in which the U.S. may find itself with little role as mediator.

But this story, if perhaps begun in Egypt, in set mostly in Bahrain, whose Shi‘a-led anti-government uprising was seen to open the door for Iranian intervention in the GCC’s own backyard. Initially, the wealthiest Gulf states sought simply to buy off protestors in Bahrain and in neighboring Oman, agreeing a $20 billion aid package dubbed the “Gulf Marshall Plan” to pay for new housing and infrastructure projects.

When that failed to appease demonstrators, a 2,000-strong force of Saudi, Qatari, and Emirati soldiers crossed the causeway into Bahrain exactly a month after protests began on February 14, defying U.S. pleas for restraint. When Kuwait’s rulers offered in lieu of ground troops to mediate talks between Bahrain’s government and opposition—a proposal designed to avoid riling the country’s own sizable Shi‘a population—they were quickly chastised by other GCC members and by their own Sunni politicians, who accused them of showing more concern for Shi‘a terrorists than for their (Sunni) brothers in Bahrain. When Kuwait next attempted to send a medical delegation to help treat Bahrain’s wounded, it was refused entry at the causeway, a further public embarrassment that precipitated the fall of the entire government some days later. Finally, shamed and bullied into participation, Kuwait dispatched a naval detachment to Bahrain. The lesson: the GCC will stand together—like it or not.

The arrival of the GCC force emboldened Bahraini authorities to carry out a lethal crackdown on all political dissent, driving the entire Gulf region off a sectarian cliff. Iran has called for the withdrawal of the “occupying force” in Bahrain, warning Saudi Arabia that in leading the charge for military intervention it is “playing with fire.” In an April 3 summit communiqué, GCC foreign ministers accused Iran of “violating the sovereignty” of Arab Gulf nations, several of which have expelled Iranian diplomats and nationals said to be members of spy rings. Iran has responded in turn. For their part, prominent Sunni clerics in Bahrain have called publicly for the permanent basing of a GCC force inside their country to stave off the Iranian—and internal Shi‘a—threat.

This sectarian fever has now spread well beyond the Gulf. Saying that the “atmosphere is not right,” the GCC is demanding the cancellation of the upcoming Arab summit to be held in Iraq, whose Shi‘a politicians and population have been rallying in support of the Bahraini opposition in recent weeks. Bahrain has also strained relations with Lebanon following statements by Hizballah leaders expressing solidarity with Bahrain’s Shi‘a, deporting more than a dozen Lebanese ex-patriots for “security reasons” and suspending flights to Beirut for fear that they will be used to traffic weapons.

In short, the Arab Spring has set the stage for the emergence of a more unified, more vigorous, and more independent GCC under the leadership of Saudi Arabia, a political-cum-military alliance designed explicitly as a regional counterweight to Iran and its assumed proxy states in the Levant. Whether in its unprecedented intervention in Bahrain or, more recently, its conspicuous participation in air strikes in Libya, this revitalized GCC operates on the principle that, if they can no longer count on U.S. government support, perhaps they ought to start leaning more on each other.

Thus, if the United States hopes to diffuse this “new Mideast Cold War” before it transforms into open conflict, and before the U.S. sheds even more of its influence among the GCC states, it would do well to begin with the continued symbol of the entire crisis, Bahrain. In the three months that have elapsed since protests began there, not one step has been taken in the direction of resolving the country’s underlying political conflict. Until that happens, the Middle East time-bomb will continue ticking.

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