Monday, February 11, 2013

The Long View on Bahrain

This week will mark the two-year anniversary of the uprising in Bahrain. A lot has changed since those first early protests, and yet so much remains the same.

New political groups have formed, but the main cleavage remains between those who have and those who have not. Broad political movements have fragmented, but the Khalifa have always taken advantage of such schisms to maintain their rule. The contagion of sectarianism has spread, but it has always infected Bahrain to some degree. The pearl monument has fallen, but its memory remains fresh as ever.

So, much remains the same as two years ago. And in fact, much remains the same from two centuries ago. The Bahraini uprising is only the latest iteration of Bahrain's long history in uprisings that have wracked Bahrain every generation under the Khalifa regime. The problem boils down to one simple truth: a minority of have's control the economic and political order, and the majority of have-not's will continue to revolt periodically until they succeed in building a more just system.

Importantly, however, much is different from the US perspective. Previous uprisings were not our problem. It was the British who most cherished Bahrain's strategic value and became entangled with the Khalifa. Even during the 90's uprising, we were still only finding our footing in the Gulf in the aftermath of Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. But now, it is the US that needs Bahrain most as our confrontation with Iran escalates. Now, we are the ones who are entangled.

We have tried to play a moderating role in the crisis, supporting those Bahrainis who seek compromise in search of middle ground. In the process, we have angered all sides and watched Anti-Americanism gain ground throughout Bahraini society. Unlike the British, we simply cannot extricate ourselves from Bahrain, for there's nobody else to maintain the regional order (some smart people would argue otherwise). So what then should we do?

Fred Wehrey addresses this exact question in his latest report for the Carnegie Endowment. The entire report is worth reading with some great analysis on how the current crisis threatens US interests. He writes:
As the crisis persists, troubling questions have arisen about the deleterious effects of America’s strategic relationship with Bahrain, which has long been a central pillar in U.S. power projection in the Gulf [...] But increasingly, the United States finds itself in the undesirable position of maintaining close ties with a repressive regime that has skillfully avoided meaningful reforms [...] Ultimately, breaking through Bahrain’s impasse is not just a matter of promoting human rights but mitigating potential security challenges to U.S. assets and people and—eventually, perhaps—forestalling a violent challenge to the monarchy.

Wehrey understands that while the US should help enable a solution, we cannot be the source for that solution. That's up to the Bahrainis themselves. He therefore calls for "a degree of modesty about what the United States can and cannot accomplish." His policy recommendations reflect this call for modesty. He argues we should leverage our defense relationship by starting to plan a gradual relocation of the Fifth Fleet, engage key leaders to push for reform, and to use a mix of economic and diplomatic pressure on human rights abusers.

These policies will not solve the crisis. But their marginal effects might be enough to curb the worst of the crisis until the prospects for an actual solution improve. The sad truth is that a real and lasting political solution will not likely come anytime soon (I do hope I'm wrong). There are too many spoilers, both inside and outside of Bahrain. In fact, my main critique of Wehrey's report is he doesn't focus enough on all the external spoilers, especially Saudi Arabia. There will be no political solution in Bahrain unless Saudi acquiesces or it loses its stranglehold on Bahraini politics - both highly unlikely in the near-term.

The US therefore should focus on the medium to long term in Bahrain. Just as Bahrainis look at this conflict as generational, so must we. Part of that plan could be looking to help professionalize the Bahrani Defense Forces by cultivating the next generation of military officers, as Wehrey argues. But more importantly, that means helping Bahrain gain economic and political independence from Saudi Arabia. Reza Akbari and I had a few ideas how in our thesis. I hope Wehrey takes on that subject the next time he writes about Bahrain.

While we must take a long-term approach to Bahrain, at the same time we must not fall for the temptation of accepting the status quo. Just look at what happened in Egypt after we accepted the status quo for too long. Instead, the long-term approach requires a concerted and consistent effort to push the Khalifa regime to reform as part of a comprehensive political solution. It will require patience. And, as Wehrey concludes, it will require a "significant rethinking and recalibration" of US policy. Because even if an unreformed Khalifa regime emerges unscathed from this crisis, another uprising will be looming right around the corner.

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