The U.S. and Bahrain: How to Talk Just Tough Enough with an Ally

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Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Bahrain Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa at the State Department in Washington, DC, on June 7, 2011.

On Tuesday — just seven days after his country lifted 13 weeks of martial law — Bahrain's Crown Prince, Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, met separately with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington. A White House statement said the President supported al-Khalifa's "ongoing efforts to initiate national dialogue" and that Bahrain's stability "depends upon respect for the universal rights of the people of Bahrain, including the right to free speech and peaceful assembly."

Coming after Obama lashed out at Bahrain's violent crackdown on peaceful protesters in a speech on May 19, his support was a public about-face that looks to repair ties with a key Middle East ally. It also appeared to signal that America will stop its public criticism of Bahrain's government even as it urges the Sunni-dominated regime to begin talks with opposition leaders.

The meetings represent "a shift in tone and indicate a softening of the U.S. stance towards Bahrain," says Shadi Hamid, research director at the Brookings Doha Center, "and show that the U.S. simply isn't serious about putting real sustained pressure on the regime right now." The effect of Tuesday's visit has been to put a band-aid on tensions between the two countries and is, Hamid says, "a green light" for Bahrain's government to go about its business without criticism or interference from the U.S. That business includes both the country's re-opening to international commerce scared off by the turmoil of the spring, and the final stages of a months-long violent crackdown on protesters, which this week saw security forces repeatedly attack Shi'a enclaves with rubber bullets and tear gas.

Since March 13, when Saudi tanks rolled into Manama and security forces began arresting anyone associated with the anti-government movement — including journalists and medical workers — the U.S. government has faced a conundrum. How does Obama reprimand an ally that houses the Navy's Fifth Fleet in a geopolitical arena that includes its regional nemesis, Iran?

"Bahrain has always been ground zero of America's inability to reconcile interests and ideals in the Arab Spring," says Hamid. "It's difficult for the Administration to handle and they haven't really found a way yet." Obama has also come under fire from international rights groups and Bahrain's Shi'as, who have repeatedly said his and Clinton's sporadic criticisms were mere lip service and that both should have taken a tougher public stance against the regime's violent tactics.

The White House said Tuesday that Obama urged al-Khalifa to follow through on "the government's commitment to ensuring that those responsible for human rights abuses will be held accountable," a marked shift in tone from May 19, when he lambasted the regime's destruction of more than 30 Shi'a mosques.

"We've called on the Obama administration to call out strongly and publicly and in no uncertain terms about the human rights violations that occurred," says Hans Hogrefe, chief policy officer at Physicians for Human Rights, which this week decried the sentencing of 48 doctors and nurses whose ministering to injured demonstrators led to their prosecution for participating in the protests. "We would hope that there would have been a more public discourse — it's important for the region to see that we measure human rights with the same yardstick everywhere, that we're not just condemning Syria and Libya all the time but let our friends off easy."

The U.S. government's aim this week was to emphasize the need for immediate talks about reform between Bahrain's regime and opposition officials. Though the Crown Prince has said he would be open to meeting with Shi'a leaders, Obama, in his May speech, echoed activists' frustration that it was impossible to begin negotiations when most of the opposition leadership was in jail. "The thing that's driving this visit to D.C. is that [Obama and Clinton] are trying to tell the Shi'a to actually negotiate. And to tell the royal family to negotiate," says Thomas Ferguson, senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. "The statement was blunt." Obama's solidarity is crucial for the fairly moderate Crown Prince, whose influence in Bahrain has declined as he fights the growing number of hard-line extremists within his own government.

At stake going forward is the U.S.'s relationship not just with Bahrain but Saudi Arabia, whose soldiers joined forces with Bahraini security officers in quelling the island nation's revolution in March. Many see the conflict in Bahrain as a proxy war between the Saudis and Iran, with the latter looking to seize on any perceived weakness in the relationship between oil-rich Saudi and America.

"The U.S. has a fundamental interest in keeping its relationship with the Saudis on an even keel, and Bahrain is its biggest issue," says Joost Hiltermann, deputy Middle East director at the International Crisis Group. Obama "knows that Iran will exploit instability in the region. The current situation is feeding into Iranian interests, because the more you suppress the Shi'a, the more they will radicalize and look for external sponsors. So it's important for the U.S. to pressure the regime to open up political space and allow participation for all its people." This week, "they're insisting on the need for dialogue without preconditions as an inclusive exercise that leads to genuine political reform."

"Rights groups may say it's not doing enough publicly to criticize its close ally," Hiltermann continues. "But the government believes that private talks are more useful in this situation than public scorn." Before Clinton's meeting Tuesday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner alluded to the possibility of criticism — and echoed the government's months-long stance on its public treatment of its island ally. "We'll obviously raise our concerns," he told reporters. "Bahrain is a friend and partner, but we can be candid with them, as well." Though opposition leaders have long agitated for stronger public rebukes from the Americans, most now side with Sheikh Ali Salman, head of official opposition party al Wefaq, who said last month that the group was ready for negotiations. After months of violence, it's likely the country's Shi'a majority won't fault U.S. leaders for keeping their discussions with the Crown Prince largely private — as long as promises of talks are kept, and tear gas stops raining down on Manama.