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 arrangement with London. When Bahrain became independent in 1971, the United States agreed to pay $4 million a year in exchange for continued basing rights. After the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Bahraini authorities evicted the U.S. Navy, only to grant it reduced facilities following protracted negotiations. In 1977, Manama insisted that U.S. forces move their headquarters back on board ship. 

The U.S. military maintained a low profile in Bahrain until the 1990 Persian Gulf crisis, when the country acted as a major naval base that hosted 20,000 U.S. troops and served as a hub for air operations against Iraq in Operation Desert Storm. After the war ended, in 1991, Washington and Manama negotiated a ten-year Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA), and four years later the U.S. military's footprint expanded when Bahrain became the headquarters of the Fifth Fleet and NAVCENT. In 2001, the United States renewed the DCA. In addition to a $6.7 million annual lease payment, the United States now provides Bahrain with military aid -- ranging from $6 million in 2006 to $18 million in 2010 -- and security pledges.

The current political upheaval in Bahrain began as a nonviolent protest by a diverse coalition, but the government and its allies have done their best to frame it as a purely sectarian conflict. Shiites comprise 60-70 percent of the country's 500,000 citizens (another 500,000 are foreign workers), yet they currently enjoy little political representation and few economic opportunities. Since independence, the al-Khalifi family has zealously guarded its power, failing to deliver on repeated promises to introduce significant political reforms. In the run-up to parliamentary elections last year, the regime arrested 23 opposition leaders and hundreds of activists, and charged them with such crimes as terrorism and conspiracy to overthrow the government.

On February 14 of this year, inspired by the movements in Tunisia and Egypt, Bahrainis took to the streets, congregating around the Pearl Roundabout in central Manama. Three days later, the security services cracked down, killing five demonstrators and injuring hundreds. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa offered limited concessions, but the protesters, incensed by the regime's violence, demanded the end of the monarchy altogether. On March 15, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council, deploying 1,000 troops, 500 security personnel, and more than 100 armored vehicles to quash the demonstrations. The king declared a three-month state of emergency and imposed martial law.

The use of force and foreign troops against peaceful demonstrators in a country with a major U.S. military presence necessarily implicates Washington. Even though U.S. officials maintain that they were informed of Riyadh's decision to intervene but not consulted about it, such a nuanced distinction will do little to remove the perception of U.S. complicity in the crackdown. Rumors now circulate that the United States green-lighted Saudi intervention in return for Riyadh's support for a no-fly zone in Libya. And the question of whether Bahraini security forces used U.S. military hardware and equipment against protesters remains open, as Washington and Manama have launched investigations into the conduct of the security services. 

These developments have raised concerns that regime change in Bahrain will lead to the eviction of U.S. forces. The United States' relative silence gives further credibility to the idea that Washington sees a trade-off between political stability and democratic reform, and that it opposes the latter for fear of jeopardizing U.S. security interests. But the "base politics" of Bahrain are part of a broader pattern.

In Kyrgyzstan last year, accusations that the United States had been too accommodating toward President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was forced out of office that April, put the fate of the critical U.S. military's Manas Air Base in jeopardy. In Uzbekistan, human rights groups now accuse U.S. officials of dampening their criticism of the government in order to safeguard U.S. supply routes through the country to Afghanistan. Djibouti, host to the largest U.S. military base in Africa, may prove the next flash point in the Middle East; its president, Ismail Omar Guelleh, recently arrested major opposition leaders and cancelled a U.S. election-monitoring mission. In the Persian Gulf, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait all host U.S. military installations, although none has faced mass protests along the lines of those that emerged in Bahrain. 

The global landscape is changing in ways that threaten to undermine U.S. basing agreements in many parts of the world. One shift is that people are more aware than ever before of the activities of U.S. bases in their countries. In 1986, a U.S. State Department memo described U.S.-Bahraini military relations as "warm, quiet and based on a long history of mutual trust and understanding." But today, satellite television, blogs, and social media have made it harder to keep the U.S. basing footprint quiet. From Ecuador to Japan to Kyrgyzstan, U.S. military bases have quickly become sources of contention when opposition leaders and activists politicize the U.S. presence. In the wake of the crackdown in Bahrain, Shia-backed regional groups, such as the Hezbollah Brigades in Iraq, have called for retaliation against U.S. troops and military installations.

Moreover, U.S. policymakers have found it harder to compartmentalize the terms of bilateral basing agreements. In theory, when negotiating bilateral agreements, the United States has the upper hand: it can tailor terms to the specific needs of a relationship, and its partners lack information about the "going rate" of what the United States is willing to bear in terms of monetary assistance, security guarantees, and concessions to host-nation sovereignty. In practice, however, this information now flows not only to elites in different host countries but also to activists, political opponents, and interest groups. This change means the United States will find itself making greater concessions and exposing itself more to charges of hypocrisy when it behaves inconsistently. 

Further complicating base politics are transnational political movements, which can overwhelm the traditional U.S. policy of promoting incremental political reform in authoritarian partners. A few years ago, the so-called color revolutions diffused across Eurasia. Although the revolutions resulted in pro-U.S. regimes in Ukraine and Georgia, by throwing a light on the authoritarian practices of Washington's allies in Central Asia, they also politicized U.S. basing arrangements in the region. Following Western criticism of the Uzbek government's crackdown on demonstrators in May 2005, Uzbek President Islam Karimov became concerned that the United States was plotting another regional regime change. In July 2005, the government of Uzbekistan evicted the U.S. military from its facility at Karshi-Khanabad, a disturbance that continues to complicate U.S. basing arrangements in Central Asia. When political movements like these arise, as they now have in the Arab world, the United States cannot count on being able to distance its bases simultaneously from unpopular host government policies and elite fears across host countries that Washington is ready to throw its autocratic friends under the bus. 

It is time for U.S. officials to reconsider their basing policies. First, they should create broader constituencies for the continued presence of the U.S. military in host countries. In Bahrain, this means U.S. policymakers should do their best to ensure that the Shia community garners economic benefits from the naval base and its related facilities, rather than allowing those benefits to be monopolized by a handful of elites. The base contributes about $150 million annually to Bahrain's economy, or about one percent of GDP. Last May, U.S. officials announced a plan to double the size of the base by 2015, with the intent of spending an additional $518 million. Given the precarious current political environment, U.S. planners should ensure that Bahraini Shia companies and workers gain a large share of the resulting contracts. 

Second, Washington needs to avoid thinking about its basing arrangements in terms of a simple trade-off between pragmatism and idealism. As recent events suggest, traditional strategies of binding the United States to loyal strongman regimes can undermine both U.S. interests and values. Defense officials and U.S. diplomats can best preserve security contracts and commitments by broadening their engagement with a wide variety of political, social, and economic actors, even over the initial objections of authoritarian elites. 

Third, U.S. officials should make efforts to decouple the rationale of a given basing relationship from support for a particular regime. This means creating political space between Washington and the policies of authoritarian host countries whenever possible. With respect to Bahrain, U.S. officials should make clear that the U.S. military maintains its facilities for the defense of its territory and for regional stability -- not for the purposes of propping up the ruling family. At the same time, Washington needs to signal that it believes that both countries' interests are best served by greater political liberalization.

Abandoning the idea of a zero-sum trade-off between pragmatism and idealism is particularly important when considering U.S. policy toward Bahrain. Some see Bahrain as a proxy state in the struggle among Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Iran, and so they believe that further pressuring Manama to democratize will open the door to Iranian domination. But this misreads the national loyalties of Shia Bahrainis and confuses the main source of current Iranian influence. Bahrain's Shiites have shown little interest in allying themselves with the deeply reactionary regime in Tehran. Indeed, the more Washington promotes the inclusion of Shiites in Bahrain's political system, the less of a political opening Tehran will have.

Some observers raise legitimate concerns about such hedging strategies, on the grounds that the United States should avoid reinforcing suspicions among its strategic partners that it will abandon them in a political pinch. But a nimbler approach to relations with host countries and their citizens would not mean abandoning autocratic allies. Ensuring that the benefits of U.S. bases are more broadly distributed, cultivating ties with a larger swath of host countries' civil societies, and clarifying the nature of the strategic relationship are all prudent steps that should do little to jeopardize strategic relationships that often pay significant dividends for the host countries.

Of course, Washington's ability to hedge its bets will differ from strategic partner to strategic partner; U.S. officials will always have to tread carefully lest they push too far and overly antagonize current governments. But it is better to gain flexibility before the next political crisis hits than be forced to scramble after it is under way.

For further expert analysis of the uprisings across the Arab world, please check out Foreign Affairs/CFR new ebook, The New Arab Revolt: What Happened, What It Means, and What Comes Next.

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  • ALEXANDER COOLEY is Associate Professor of Political Science at Barnard College and a member of Columbia University's Arnold A. Saltzman Institute for War and Peace Studies. DANIEL H. NEXON is Associate Professor in the School of Foreign Service and the Department of Government at Georgetown University.
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