Editor's Note: Joost R. Hitlermann is Deputy Program Director for Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group.
Ever since the Arab Spring began, Washington has been faced with the question of how to ease autocrats from power. After former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced from office in February, President Barack Obama said that the United States had been on the "right side" of history, suggesting that that is where Washington would position itself in the Arab world's transition to democracy. What exactly this should mean in practice remains an unsettled question - especially in states presided over by dictators whose stable rule and pro-U.S. orientation were long-standing cornerstones of U.S. strategy in the Middle East.
This dilemma is particularly salient in the case of Bahrain, a small island kingdom in the Gulf and a longtime U.S. strategic ally. For months now, Bahrain has been engulfed in protests against the repressive rule of the Khalifa family; the most recent demonstrations in late August claimed the life of a 14-year-old boy, the latest casualty in the regime's drive to restore order.
In Egypt, Mubarak fell from power with the rhetorical urging of Washington, but not before the United States faced criticism from across the region - from many Egyptians, who believed that Washington dithered and weighed in too late, and from Saudi Arabia, which saw the Obama administration's endorsement of Mubarak's ouster as a deep betrayal of Saudi Arabia's friendship and alliance with the United States. In March, fearful of a repeat scenario in its own neighborhood, Riyadh sent troops to Bahrain to prop up the ruling Khalifa family under the guise of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Like the Mubarak regime was, the Khalifas are U.S. allies who have come under sustained pressure from an embittered populace.
Bahrain's nominal ruler, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, reportedly extended the formal invitation to the GCC, of which Bahrain is a founding member, to invade. The real power in Bahrain, however, is the king's uncle, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the longest-sitting unelected prime minister in the world, who over the course of his 40 years in power has seen his country gain independence from the United Kingdom in 1971, transition from his brother Isa to his nephew Hamad as monarch in 1999, and turn from an emirate into a monarchy in 2002.
Washington is concerned. Bahrain is perhaps even more important to U.S. policy priorities than Egypt: The country is an Arab state strategically located across the Persian Gulf from Iran and hosts the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet. Moreover, Bahrain is a critical link to the decades-old U.S. effort to protect the Western world's access to Gulf oil.
As the Arab Spring unfolded, the Khalifas were not very different from other U.S.-allied autocrats in the region. Although Bahrain is in some ways more open than either Mubarak-led Egypt or Saudi Arabia - political parties operate as "societies," for example, and some independent media outlets do exist - the Khalifas remain just as unaccountable as their royal brethren in other GCC states, seeking to pacify the population by spreading the country's wealth. Moreover, in a nation with a majority Shiite population, a Sunni-led autocracy has deepened sectarian fissures. For its part, Washington has been concerned for some time that by keeping the Shia down, the regime might end up driving them into Iran's arms.
When demonstrations broke out in Bahrain, the Obama administration had to take special care. It realized that Bahrain would be better stabilized by finding an accommodation between the regime and the opposition than by repressing popular sentiment. Washington therefore seized on King Hamad's initiative to allow protesters to gather peacefully at the Pearl Roundabout several days after the protests started in February and encouraged his son, Crown Prince Salman, to engage in semi-secret talks with the main legal opposition groups. It initially seemed there was a prospect of serious dialogue moving toward genuine political reform.
As protests grew and spread to other parts of the island, however, and protesters' demands escalated from the removal of the unpopular prime minister to the replacement of the monarchy with a republic, U.S. officials raced to keep alive the faltering talks, hoping to stave off a violent response from the regime. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman shuttled between regime and opposition figures, and between Bahrain and its GCC allies for several days in mid-March. On March 12, Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Manama, where he criticized the regime for its "baby steps" toward reform.
None of this sufficed. Two days later, Saudi troops marched across the causeway connecting Bahrain with Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, which also has a large Shia population. A prolonged violent crackdown ensued.
It remains impossible to say whether the GCC intervened to prevent the fall of the Bahraini monarchy or to preempt the political compromises that Prince Salman was publicly declaring he was prepared to make. Those reforms would potentially have put the country on the path toward a constitutional monarchy with an elected prime minister and a Shia-majority parliament, a prospect that frightened both Prime Minister Khalifa, whose job was at stake, and the Saudi ruling family, which sees a Shia ascendancy as tantamount to empowering the mullahs in Tehran.
At the heart of this enigma stands Crown Prince Salman himself: Was his offer to the opposition genuine, or was it a ploy to gain time and persuade protesters to go home? Both the Obama administration and Bahrain's legal opposition societies appeared to trust him; many of the Pearl Roundabout protesters did not.
U.S. officials have invested a good deal of time and energy in the 41-year-old crown prince, whose Western education and liberal outlook have made him a natural interlocutor for Washington. By contrast, U.S. officials have had limited access to Prime Minister Khalifa and the hard-liners around him. During the height of the crisis, the Obama administration reportedly tried to find a way for the prime minister to step down and make way for someone from outside the ruling family. This attempt failed, and the GCC-sponsored crackdown may have further entrenched Khalifa.
How Washington should now proceed is an open question. If Crown Prince Salman is serious about reform, then the United States should apply steady pressure on the regime to move beyond phony attempts at national dialogue and return to inclusive talks that embrace the spectrum of political opposition. Prince Salman would essentially have to pick up from the point where talks broke off in March.
The objective of such a process would be a transition to a constitutional monarchy, the redrawing of electoral district boundaries to more fairly represent Shia constituencies, and the empowerment of parliament to elect the prime minister.
The Obama administration could aid this process by proffering incentives, beginning with assurances that it will stand by the monarchy and provide further military assistance, including joint training exercises. The Obama administration should also laud any tangible steps toward reform as evidence of the regime's willingness to open up. (Among other benefits to Bahrain, such support could help restore its reputation as a regional banking center, which suffered when Moody's downgraded Bahrain's government bond rating following the crackdown.)
If, however, the royal family (the crown prince included) has decided that it is done with compromise and it becomes clear that any offers to that effect are simply attempts to deceive the opposition into calling off street protests, then the Obama administration will find itself in a real bind. The regime's current track - an ongoing crackdown and a dialogue with its own supporters rather than with the opposition - will almost certainly lead to further sectarian polarization and political radicalization, and possibly to greater violence.
The Obama administration should test the regime's intentions by setting two clear initial benchmarks: the prompt release of jailed opposition leaders and a genuinely inclusive dialogue with them and the groups they represent. Should the Khalifas fail this test, Washington would then have to consider assuming a tougher posture, including threatening to scale down security assistance and even to relocate the Fifth Fleet. Although the U.S. defense cooperation agreement (which governs docking rights at the base) does not expire for another five years, the discussion about the wisdom of keeping the U.S. Navy in Bahrain has already begun among regime critics in Washington and elsewhere; further repression would only give the notion greater currency.
Increasingly, these critics may find support in Bahrain itself. Until recently, many Bahrainis viewed the naval base as a safety valve against even harsher regime repression, but if they find the United States unwilling or unable to press the regime toward meaningful reform, public opinion might soon turn against Washington, including the Fifth Fleet's presence.
Washington retains real leverage over the regime. Bahrain is firmly under the U.S. security umbrella in the Gulf, and the United States provides Bahrain with funding for military purchases ($19 million in 2010) as well as military training assistance. The United States should be more assertive about using this influence: The current policy of continuing military-to-military relations without regard for the political and human rights situation is counterproductive, could be interpreted as violating U.S. law, and exposes the Obama administration to accusations of double standards in its approach to the Arab Spring.
For the moment, Bahrain is the first successful chapter of the Arab counterrevolution spearheaded by Saudi Arabia - it is the place where the West has broken its promise to support the Arab people in their struggle for a greater say in politics and greater control over their destinies. It is time for the Obama administration to push the country back onto the road toward reform, using pro-democracy forces within the regime, its supporters and the opposition to show the way.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Joost R. Hiltermann.