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.
At the same time, despite its lack of significant oil and gas reserves, Bahrain has grown into a regional economic and financial powerhouse. Prime Minister Khalifa stakes his legitimacy on having shepherded this growth. But his repressive tactics against dissent and his failure to curb corruption and widen the space for political participation fueled the protests that began in February.
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.