It’s the question that always makes me cringe. “Where are you from?” asks the taxi driver/shopkeeper/doorman/interviewee. I don’t lie, but in Pakistan or the Middle East I know that answering “American” can sometimes be met with a fusillade of angry observations about the evils of America’s foreign policy. Until recently, Iraq, Afghanistan, Predator drones and Israel have topped the list of anti-American gripes. These days however, the most common response is a plaintive, “Why is it that Americans support dictators in other countries that they would never stand for in their own country?”
I try, and fail, to explain national interest. That stability in the region is paramount. But increasingly that explanation is starting to sound a little hollow. After all, a loathed dictator brings a stability that is hardly sustainable. Witness how regimes from Saudi Arabia to Yemen to Oman and Bahrain have responded to dissent by throwing around wads of cash. That’s like giving my one-year-old a new toy every time she cries, while refusing to change her diaper. It might work for a while, but there is no way it is going to end well.
So now, in Bahrain, the King has declared a “State of National Safety,” which is just a nice spin on martial law. For the next three months the government is authorized to use whatever force it deems necessary to quash peaceful, pro-democracy protests that have been going on for the past month. Note how I say “pro-democracy.” Not Shia protests. Not anti-king protests. Not armed protests. While these elements are there to a small degree, the bulk of the protestors want reform. They want the constitutional democracy they were promised in a referendum a decade ago. They want, gasp, the right to have a say in how they are governed.
To be sure, some of the protests have gotten out of hand. Unconfirmed reports are now coming in that a Saudi soldier, sent in under the aegis of the GCC to calm the situation, has been shot by a protestor. The circumstances are vague. It would be an unusual turn of events for the protesters who have been resolutely peaceful up until now – preferring to shed their own blood in order to garner sympathetic coverage. And Bahrain TV, the state-run broadcaster, has certainly run misleading or downright false news accounts in the past regarding armed protestors.
So in Egypt, voters will go to the polls in a referendum on lifting the state of emergency, among other things, while in another key ally in the Gulf, a state of emergency has just been put in place. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited Bahrain over the weekend, a surprise stop intended to shore up the embattled King. It must have been a little awkward, driving through throngs of pro-democracy supporters on his way to tell the King to chin up. He did tell both King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and Crown Prince Sheik Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa that they needed to speed up reforms and make meaningful concessions to the opposition, according to press reports. Perhaps something was lost in translation: on Sunday riot police fired rubber bullets and tear gas on protestors at close range, and on Monday the Saudi armed forces came rolling over the causeway connecting the tear-drop shaped island to the mainland, soldier beamed at state-run television cameras and waved victory signs. Small wonder the opposition is calling the troop incursion an “occupation.”
The King has defended his calls in the name of “stability.” So we are back at this curious word again. What exactly does he mean by stability? Surely a more stable approach would start with instituting lasting political reform. It might lead to a dizzying state of unpredictability in the immediate future, as groups vie for power in a real parliament and the king reconsiders his role, but in the long term elections bring far less upheaval than explosive revolutions. So where is the vocal U.S. call for institutional reform a la Egypt or Libya? Yes, Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. But democracy is not a risk to the Fifth Fleet. Democracy is simply the voice of the majority, who recognize the financial and diplomatic advantages of having American battleships docked in your marina.
But that’s just it, isn’t it? Bahrain’s majority is Shia. And so is Iran. So logic says that they must be in cahoots, right? Wrong. Bahrainis are, by and large, Arab. Iranians are Persian. They speak different languages. They have different cultures. It’s like saying Poland is allied with Italy because they are both Catholic.
So let’s unpack this a little further. If democratic reforms go through in Bahrain, yes, it would likely empower the Shia majority. Why is that such a bad thing? Iran might be cheering over the discomfiture of Bahrain’s king right now, but when yet another a Shia-majority country gains democratic reforms, they might start sweating over home grown demands for the same. The only country that really stands to be destabilized by reform in Bahrain is Saudi Arabia, which has a significant, and underserved, Shia population of its own. So in order to promote an unsustainable stability in one country, we shore up an unsustainable government in another. For how long?
It is time for the United States to stop sacrificing morals for interests. We have an opportunity to get behind organic, native demands for the very institutions that have made us the great, and stable, nation that we are. Bahrain’s king and Saudi Arabia’s army may have the upper hand at the moment, but the momentum is with the protestors. Shouldn’t we put our money where our mouth is for once? At the very least it would serve my own interests: a more comfortable taxi ride next time I’m in Bahrain.