February 19, 2013

Are we willing to see Bahrain step up?

It certainly has been painful and confusing to watch Bahrain again deal unevenly with internal political tensions under the spotlight of powerful and polarizing neighbors like Saudi Arabia and Iran. Now, it seems, Western opinion-shapers aren't much interested beyond the spectacle of clashes between demonstrators and government forces, and the mistreatment of opposition figures.

For all the media and political attention of two years ago, and even the most recent violence coming on the second anniversary, there has been scant coverage of the National Dialogue now underway. Of course, it would have been easier to advance this grievance-airing and consensus-building BEFORE the anniversary of the tragic crackdown, but there's still little excuse for ignoring it. 

It's always possible that wise diplomats and responsible journalists want to give space for the dialogue to proceed without the distraction of global visibility. But just weeks ago, Bahrain's Crown Prince raised the curtain for the National Dialogue before an audience of regional and international leaders, reporters, policy mavens, and even yours truly. This is no secret conversation, and reform-minded Bahrainis like Prince Salman seem to think publicity will help incentivize all Bahrainis -- including the ruling classes -- to give a chance to reconciliation and even to limited democracy. 

I assessed Washington's cautious role for Josh Rogin during last December's Manama Dialogue, "Since the last time we had this summit two years ago, Bahrain has been going through a difficult period. Bahrain has been assailed on Capitol Hill and elsewhere and perhaps rightly. But what has the U.S. government done to help Bahrain get through it? We've left it to other countries, we've left it to international organizations and NGOs. Maybe that's worked, but we can't take credit for that."

Why not help the Dialogue conveners help Bahrain, or at least put them on the spot? Perhaps the international community is wary of rewarding Bahrain with positive press before it's been redeemed by those inside and outside who oppose its ruling family. While our new Secretary of State is in the Gulf next week, he might take the opportunity to bolster those striving for a solution, even at the expense of angering fundamentalists in the region and absolutists back at home.

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