Sorry, I can't get that song out of my head (because of the capital of Bahrain). So the revolutions and uprisings against dictators in the Middle East continue. Yemen, Bahrain and Libya are all best with massive demonstrations. Yemen is not that surprising as the country is already fighting two separate civil wars plus dealing with the largest branch of Al Qaeda outside of the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater. All three are deadly serious. But Bahrain and Libya are more interesting because their regimes were not so unstable to begin with.
Saturday, February 19, 2011
Bahrain is a wealthy country by world standards but not by the standards of Gulf Kingdoms. Bahrain exports some oil but most of its economy is based on oil processing and especially banking. Bahrain has a ethnically/religiously divided society too. The monarchy and the elite come from the Sunni Islamic group. But a majority of Muslims are Shia Muslims. The news is common reporting that Bahrain is "majority Shia" but this is not exactly true. Shiites are the clear majority among Muslims but only make up about 50% of the total population because of the large non-Muslim communities (mainly Christians, Jews and Hindus). Like many Gulf states, Bahrain has imported laborers from South Asia in large numbers. Bahrain actually has a reputation for being relatively tolerant of different religious groups. And while there are Islamist groups in the country they are divided between Sunni Islamists and Shiite Islamists (and both have recently been rocked by sex scandals involving an unscheduled "fact finding" mission to Bangkok). Bahrain's political situation is such that the monarchy effectively manages a system of nominal competitive democracy characterized by a weak parliament and suspect elections. Bahrain's human rights record is mixed but by the standards of the Middle East it has a good record. The latest news is that the King has asked his son, the Crown Prince, to begin a national dialogue and that Crown Prince has since ordered the military off the streets. So it looks like Bahrain's regime has decided to respond to the crisis by continuing reforms rather than cracking down.
From the US perspective the big issue is that the US 5th Fleet is headquartered there. Some fear that Shiite majority = Pro-Iranian. People with this point of view fear that any reform in Bahrain will lead to the 5th Fleet being expelled from the country. To this I say two things. First, having a large naval facility in a small country like Bahrain means JOBS. Also, the 5th Fleet is there to keep the dangerous, local sea lanes open and open sea lanes are the life blood of this little island nation. So I wouldn't assume that even if there is a significant power shift in Bahrain that it would automatically lead to the US military being asked to leave. Second, if there is a request that we go, I wouldn't see it as anything other than a costly annoyance. The role that the 5th Fleet plays is popular enough with enough of the countries in the region that there would be a home for them nearby. I'm reminded of the "sky is falling" cries from the hawkish right about the fall of the Marcos regime back in the 80s. They said it would lead to the demise of two key US military bases in the Phillipines (Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Force Base). The hawks feared that this would open up the Pacific to the Chinese. In the end, both bases were asked to be removed by the new Democratic government of the Philippines. We still have bases in western Pacific and we are still allies with the Philippines.
Libya has more oil than Bahrain but more people so they are poorer on average. Dictator, Gaddafi, is the often ruthless and increasingly clownish ruler of the country. Gaddafi's willingness to engage in murder and terrorism is combined with an almost absurd ambition to be a relevant world leader. That his regime is in trouble would seem to be a source of great pleasure for American policy makers. Other than a "better the devil you know" view, I can't see a reason not to embrace the anti-regime demonstrations in that country. Gaddafi of course has responded with a military crack down.
So what should the Obama administration do? I think the President should deal with Bahrain and Libya more or less like he dealt with Egypt. Constantly say that these are internal matters for sovereign people while expressing support for peaceful reforms and dialogues and condemnation of violence. I think it is especially important that the US not be seen to deal with these two countries differently. We are especially vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy in the Middle East region and we should take care to be seen to be even handed an consistent when it comes to calls for democracy.
Who's next? My bet would be on Syria. If Gadaffi ends up going down, the Asad dynasty in Syria will be sweating bullets (and probably shooting a lot of them at crowds).
Posted by Raised By Republicans at 5:27 AM