Unrest surging through the Arab world has so far taken no toll on the US military. However, that could change if revolt washes over the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain — long-time home to the US Navy’s mighty 5th Fleet and arguably the Middle East anchor of US defense strategy.
The discontent that has spilled into the streets of Bahrain’s capital, Manama, this week features no anti-US sentiment, but the US has a lot at stake in preserving its dominant naval presence in the Gulf.
In announcing that it is “very concerned” about violence linked to the protests, the US State Department on Tuesday underscored Bahrain’s strategic importance as a US partner.
“The United States welcomes the government of Bahrain’s statements that it will investigate these deaths, and that it will take legal action against any unjustified use of force by Bahraini security forces,” department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. “We urge that it follow through on these statements as quickly as possible.”
The 5th Fleet operates at least one aircraft carrier in the Gulf at all times, along with an “amphibious ready group” of ships with Marines aboard. Their presence is central to a longstanding US commitment to ensuring the free flow of oil through the Gulf, while keeping an eye on a hostile Iran and seeking to deter piracy in the region.
Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East defense specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Bahrain has security services capable of handling protesters and potentially backed by neighboring Saudi Arabia.
Thousands of banner-waving protesters took over a main square in Manama on Tuesday in a bold attempt to copy Egypt’s uprising. The demonstrations capped two days of clashes that left at least two people dead, and the king making a rare address on national TV to offer condolences for the bloodshed.
“It is a serious problem, but whether it’s going to flare up any more seriously this time than all the other times is hard to say,” Cordesman said. “The question is whether they can shake the security structure of the state.”
The implications for US foreign policy and national security from the pro-democracy movements that have arisen in the Arab world — highlighted by Egypt’s stunning revolution last week — was likely to be a topic yesterday when US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates testifies before the House Armed Services Committee.
Bahrain became a more prominent partner for the US after the 1991 Gulf War with Iraq; since then it has granted US forces increased access, plus permission to store wartime supplies for future crises.
In the weeks leading up to popular revolts that toppled autocratic regimes first in Tunisia and then Egypt, US President Barack Obama’s administration officials portrayed Bahrain as being on the right track toward democracy.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, during a visit to Manama in December, called Bahrain “a model partner,” not only for the US, but also for other countries in the region seeking political liberalization.
“I am impressed by the commitment that the government has to the democratic path that Bahrain is walking on,” Clinton told a news conference on Dec. 3, with Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa at her side. “It takes time; we know that from our own experience. There are obstacles and difficulties along the way. But America will continue working with you to promote a vigorous civil society and to ensure that democracy, human rights and civil liberties are protected by the rule of law.”