U.S. policymakers have long struggled to reconcile their support for friendly authoritarian regimes with their preference for political liberalization abroad. The ongoing upheavals in the Middle East, like so many developments before them, shine a bright light on this inconsistency. In Egypt, the Obama administration struggled to calibrate its message on the protests that toppled longtime ally Hosni Mubarak; in Libya, it leads a multinational coalition intent on using airpower to help bring down Muammar al-Qaddafi; and in Bahrain, the United States stands mostly silent as Saudi troops put down popular protests against the ruling al-Khalifa family.
Washington's balancing act reflects more than the enduring tensions between pragmatism and idealism in U.S. foreign policy. It highlights the specific strains faced by defense planners as they attempt to maintain the integrity of the United States' worldwide network of military bases, many of which are hosted in authoritarian, politically unstable, and corrupt countries. Now, with the "Arab Spring" unfolding, even U.S. basing agreements with some of its closest allies are vulnerable.
Until the recent revolutions in the Middle East, Bahrain's relative stability and loyalty to the United States provided comfort to Pentagon officials. The U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet -- which brings with it several thousand onshore personnel and dependents, about 30 warships, and roughly 30,000 sailors -- has its headquarters in Juffair, a suburb of Bahrain's capital, Manama. The Fifth Fleet patrols the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, the western part of the Indian Ocean, and the Persian Gulf, ensuring that sea-lanes remain open, protecting the flow of oil, conducting anti-piracy operations, and acting as a check against Iran's regional influence. Bahrain also hosts the United States' Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) -- the maritime component to the U.S. Central Command -- and offers U.S. forces the Isa Air Base and space at Bahrain International Airport.
During the 1940s and 1950s, Bahrain was a British protectorate, and the U.S. military operated out of the country through a leasing