MANAMA, Bahrain — While many nations across the Middle East and North Africa have been shaken by the revolutionary movement, only one of them — tiny Bahrain — has proven strategically important enough for U.S. interests to attract back-to-back visits from President Barack Obama’s top two defense officials.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Manama late Friday for a previously unannounced meeting with the king and crown prince on Saturday. His stop comes just two weeks after Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen came here to show Washington’s support for Bahrain’s ruling family and its willingness to negotiate peacefully with protesters demanding political reforms.
The Obama administration has strategically embraced the country in what some inside and outside the administration consider an unapologetic example of 21st century realpolitik — the unemotional application of practical geopolitics over ideology.
Gates’ Bahrain visit — officially to encourage a dialogue with protesters and reiterate U.S. support for the ruling family — furthers the administration’s “pragmatic approach to current events,” said a senior defense official speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity aboard the secretary’s plane.
The U.S. has shared “deep, common interests” with Bahrain for decades, the official noted, adding, “Nothing about that has changed, and one of those common interests is stability.”
Bahrain is an island midway up the western shore of the Persian Gulf, directly across from Iran and connected to Saudi Arabia by a causeway. The U.S. Navy’s presence dates to the 1940s and Naval Support Activity Bahrain houses some of the most important military missions to U.S. strategic interests in the world today, including a new forward deployed headquarters for Marines in the region.
From here, the Navy’s Fifth Fleet watches over the Arabian Sea, Persian Gulf, Red Sea and Indian Ocean as well as the Suez Canal, Straits of Hormuz, and Yemen, all while supporting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The administration feels it has applied a consistent approach across the region, in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and other countries by standing up for freedom of assembly, speech and information, nonviolence and peaceful protests.
“I think you look at our statements across the board, we’ve been pretty consistent on that,” the official said.
But the frank public support for Bahrain’s regime, with pro-democracy protesters and opposition party loyalists still in the streets, contrasts with more removed approaches the Obama administration has taken elsewhere.
“Obviously the United States engages in realpolitik,” said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East and North Africa expert at International Crisis Group. “Nobody expects the United States to pursue a values-only foreign policy, especially in the Middle East with oil. That simply doesn’t work.”
Across the region, however, the U.S. has treaded lightly compared with the praise given Bahrain. In other countries, administration leaders have relied on telephone calls from the White House, Pentagon and State Department, or through various media statements condemning violence and urging attentiveness to reformer demands. More quietly, diplomats have peppered the region urging a calm progress.
In Bahrain, the U.S. is balancing support for protesters with support for a longtime ally, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. Dropping one or the other would both be destabilizing for U.S. security interests.
“I’m not sure we’re picking sides,” the defense official said. "We’re advocating a process."
As protests in Bahrain grew rapidly in early February, U.S. leaders faced a stark choice: support the regime or risk losing an ally sitting just across the water from Iran. Bahraini police and troops initially attacked protesters with deadly violence, drawing public condemnation from Obama on Feb. 17. But the administration was not ready to jettison the relationship.
By the time Mullen arrived a week later, Bahrain’s royals had withdrawn their security forces, permitted Pearl Square to become a hub for nonviolent demonstrations, and pledged to negotiate.
Mullen, Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton now call Bahrain a model outcome for all Middle East countries in turmoil. “We all have to be realistic here,” said Salman Shaik, director of the Brookings Doha Center, in a telephone interview from London. “Countries like the United States and other superpowers have interests.”
F. Gregory Gause, a University of Vermont professor, told the Council on Foreign Relations last month: “The idea that you would sacrifice the headquarters of your naval forces in the region at a time when your foreign policy goal is to contain Iran would certainly be seen as a victory for Iran and a defeat for the United States. … I would probably lean more toward maintaining the relationship and work on them in the long term for better governance.”