A U.S. Double-Standard for Bahrain?
Screaming at the riot police, dozens of women dressed head-to-toe in black excoriated the police for dragging away a teenage boy. The police, dressed in shiny white helmets and black flak jackets, held their billy clubs in check. A policeman with a megaphone finally dispersed the crowd, threatening them with jail if they stayed.
The boy was allegedly picked up by plainclothes officers for organizing a protest.
“Welcome to living under a dictatorship,” said a young Bahraini-American, an architect from Ohio who was back in Bahrain for the one-year anniversary of the uprisings here.
Those uprisings didn’t result in a regime change, the way many of the protests in the Arab Spring did, but they did raise an uncomfortable but important question for the United States: How long can the U.S. keep close ties with a regime that kills and tortures those who protest their rule?
At least 35 people were killed during protests in February-March 2011, according to Amnesty International. More than 20 have died since then in the ongoing protests; dozens of people have been reportedly tortured.
The protesters are mainly Shia Muslims, who make up 70 percent of the population but are shut out of almost all government posts. The Sunni al Khalifa family has ruled Bahrain for more than 200 years, with King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa holding nearly complete control of the country.
But unlike the rulers in Egypt, Libya and Syria, the U.S. has not called for King al Khalifa to step down. The State Department has instead issued a much milder rebuke, asking Bahrain to “exercise restraint and operate within the rule of law and international judicial standards.”
Why the gentler treatment?
U.S. Navy Religious Program Specialist 2nd Class Calvin Do, left, Yeoman 1st Class Leviticus McNeal, background, and Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Russell Smith render honors to the American flag being flown at half-mast outside the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and U.S. 5th Fleet headquarters in Manama, Bahrain, March 15, 2011. (Credit: MC1 Cynthia De Leon/US Navy) Because Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, a crucial part of the U.S. military effort in this part of the world.
And rather than increase the pressure on Bahrain’s dictatorial regime to curb the use of excessive force on protesters and allow more representation from the country’s majority sect, the U.S. instead seems to be doubling down on their support for King al Khalifa.
“They are a long-term partner and a very important piece of our ability to do our mission,” said Vice-Admiral Mark Fox, the commander of the Fifth Fleet.