Tuesday, March 1, 2011

No Anchors Aweigh for the 5th Fleet - U.S. Backs Bahrain Royalty

As the WSJ reports this evening, "The U.S. is stepping up its support for Bahrain's beleaguered ruling family, throwing a lifeline to a key ally and signaling Washington's willingness to vary its approach depending on its strategic interests and the willingness of autocratic leaders to respond to popular protests."

Anthony Cordesman elaborates further on the logic, saying that  

the Obama administration understood that it can't respond to the unrest sweeping the region with a "one-size-fits-all" approach. "These pressures occur in very different regimes with very different social and economic situations, and the administration has to be pragmatic," he said. While Mr. Mubarak in Egypt and Col. Gadhafi in Libya showed a "systemic resistance to reform," the royal family of Bahrain has made "serious promises of change."

I've often valued Mr. Cordesman's pragmatic, no-nonsense approach, but at least in what's quoted by the WSJ, he avoids mention of some of the principal imperatives underlying Mr. Obama's pragmatic willingness to give Bahrain's monarchy a second chance after its security forces brutally murdered demonstrators:

  • the US Fifth Fleet - the guardian of the oil-tanker routes upon which so much of the global - and US - economy depends - anchors in Manama's harbor
  • the Saudi monarchy is desperate to ensure that the lid be kept on on Bahrain, (a) where a Sunni monarchy rules over a Shia-dominant population, and (b) which is separated only by a causeway from the Shia-dominated eastern province of Saudi Arabia - which also happens to be where much of the Kingdom's oil lies.  It was also widely reported today that the Saudis were shipping tanks (not the oil kind; the kind with treads and big guns) to Bahrain, presumably to bolster the Bahraini military against any possible surge in protests.

You can bet that Obama-Clinton are watching Bahrain (and, for that matter, Oman, where protests are cranking up) carefully, and nervously.  The US has come down decisively on the side of most of the anti-autocrat, pro-democracy protests across the Middle East - in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya (not so much in Yemen though, where Mr. al-Saleh today accused the US and Israel of mounting a conspiracy against him, but where the US probably fears that his overthrow will open space for al-Qaeda extremists to become stronger) - and Mr. Obama has mostly positioned himself as a staunch supporter of democratic reform throughout the region.

But how far will Obama go as Defender of Democracy if the safety of the Persian Gulf petroleum routes comes into play?  The recent confusion surrounding oil supply from Libya has already played havoc with US gasoline prices.  A real crisis in the Gulf could send oil futures - and those gas prices - sky high, and wreck the economic recovery that has begun to position Mr. Obama very nicely as the 2012 election season approaches.  But if, to preserve access to oil, Obama decides to play the stability/pro-autocrat card against a ratcheted-up pro-democracy movement on Bahrain, he could imperil US influence with pro-democracy, mostly young (read: the future) Arabs across the region.

And that could affect attitudes toward other US clients in the region: Jordan, Iraq . . . and Israel.

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