February 18, 2011

Why Bahrain matters

I was very flattered to be invited to last December's Manama Dialogue, in Bahrain, and the experience itself was unique: Iranians and Arabs, Americans and Europeans, ministers and experts, all sharing perspectives and strategies for regional stability and security -- and all on a small slice of sand between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

No one who visits Bahrain, or any country, for just a few days can get behind all the posturing and pathos -- no matter how small or large the country, regardless of whether one has 500 Twitter followers or one million. But here is how I see the outcome so far.

I am deeply saddened by the loss of life. I had really thought that Bahrain could turn a corner this week for the entire region, that engaging in open and peaceful dialogue would offer an example of how monarchies need not fear peaceful dissent; that the Iranian regime would be more strongly repudiated by comparison with a sophisticated, confident and tolerant Bahrain; that the whole region might see that Bahrain's courtship with the West helped its rulers find a golden path to consensus-building and moral inspiration.

The particular challenges facing Bahrain had made its achievements that much more impressive. It is the Gulf state most vulnerable to Iran's regional machinations. Without trivializing this week's protesters or their grievances, it's inconceivable that Iran hasn't found some way to manipulate elements of the native Shia opposition. Bahrain is small, not among the wealthiest of oil nations (yes, there is the U.S. Fifth Fleet), and it has pushed to embrace the West on all fronts while maintaining an absolute monarchy. 

These transformations take time. Bahrain had more time and opportunity than most Middle Eastern states. Has Lebanon ever had a real chance? Or Egypt? But perhaps it was not enough time, and the change on the ground was too uneven. Maybe the contradictions were too difficult to manage or reconcile. Clearly, at least some in positions of power made some unforgivably bad and unacceptable decisions, and they have given Iran a gift basket filled with strategic and political goodies.

Bahrain's journey has not ended, and it remains likely that the Khalifa dynasty will withstand the latest round of demonstrations. But that survival comes at a cost. For those supporting real change and real cooperation throughout the Middle East, anger at the police crackdown should give way to disappointment at this setback for a key incubator of pluralism, pragmatism, and coexistence. 

These new demonstrations are not the typical outburst that blows over after a few months. There will be consequences. And when the smoke clears, we should be ready to step back in and help Bahrainis accept those consequences and learn the right lessons, so they can progress further and faster. The stakes are too high to either look the other way or just throw up our hands in disgust.

1 comment:

  1. Any government that fires upon its people – sleeping families, doctors helping the injured – is a regime of despicable cowards. This is not just a Kent State moment, but a pattern of repeated instances during the past few days. Obviously, the ruling family in Bahrain is unfit and undeserving of hosting any international conference, yet alone to be in a position of governance. Nations, such as the US that would continue to support such a regime, loses another piece of its moral high-ground. We, as Americans, need to reconsider who we support and ally ourselves with, Fifth Fleet, or not.