Thursday, March 17, 2011


the events in bahrain have been buried under the news from japan and libya . both of them are legitimately big stories, of course, but i am afraid that the lack of attention will give the obama administration a pass on the one major foreign news story that actually have the power to influence.

bahrain is a very small country that is the home to the u.s. navy's fifth fleet. the presence of such a major facility in such a small country means that the u.s. is already a major factor in king khalifa's decision-making. in that sense, the revolution in bahrain is more like the one in egypt (where u.s. funding of the egyptian military gave it a lot of influence), and less like the one in libya (where the u.s. had few pre-existing ties and thus its options in influencing events have been limited to various kinds of military intervention).

the scope of american influence was demonstrated last month when protests first broke out in bahrain, security forces killed two protesters, the u.s. government urged restraint, and the bahraini security forces backed off. it's not clear whether that trick would work again (in fact, it looks like it isn't), but it does show that the u.s. has influence.

last month's the backing off period seems to have ended. and i'm afraid that the arrival of saudi forces will mean that a violent crackdown will be easier to pull off. whenever there are protests against a government the biggest check against violent repression is the fact that the security forces themselves are citizens of the country and may share some of the concerns of the protesters or have family members who are participating in the demonstrations. qadhafi got around that problem by using mercenaries and by exploiting the tribal divisions within the libyan military (i.e. sending units comprised of soldiers of his own tribe against areas that are dominated by a different tribe). the saudi military, because they are predominantly sunni and are not bahraini, will undermine the effectiveness of that check in bahrain.

floating in the background of all of this is paranoia about iran, and the abiding belief that all shia arabs are really just iranian agents. the current saudi government is consumed by anti-iranian paranoia, and unfortunately, the american defense establishment is also strongly influenced by the paranoia emanating from its ties with the KSA and israel. iran's strong objections to the crackdown are probably just feeding the paranoia that this is little more than an iranian power play. which means that without the american public paying attention to bahrain and sympathizing with the protesters, it will be easy for the administration to let the iran hawks in the pentagon dictate policy, which is not good for the protesters.