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May 31, 2012

Treat Bahrain Like an Ally


Since Bahrain's uprising began, the Obama administration has displayed a profound lack of leadership in supporting one of Washington's staunchest allies in the Middle East. The U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet is based in Manama and is a bulwark to containing Iran and ensuring that oil can flow through the Straits of Hormuz unimpeded. Despite this, the administration was quick to criticize Bahrain's government — well before effectively assessing the situation on the ground.

At the beginning of the crisis, U.S. military officials met with the government of Bahrain, urging it to seek dialogue and reform with the opposition. However, conflict escalated as Al Wifaq, the leading Shia opposition group, boycotted the national dialogue.

President Obama only worsened relations with Manama when he acknowledged Al Wifaq in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly last September. Al Wifaq is considered by many in the Sunni community to be maintaining pro-Iranian sympathies, and the vitriolic Shia cleric Isa Qassim is a vocal supporter of the group. Furthermore, the Obama administration's withholding of a $53 million arms deal was perceived as a weak effort to placate some of the human rights groups who have dubious political motivations.

While the abuses by government security forces were rightfully condemned by the administration, it failed to also recognize violence committed by the opposition. By siding with the opposition, President Obama turned his back on one of the region's most democratic and pluralistic governments. Bahrain's government is far from perfect, but it is slowly implementing reforms as outlined in the report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. The Obama administration should urge Bahrain to stick to these reforms.

Last month's high-level visit between Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and U.S. officials was a welcome step toward repairing relations. So was this month's release of a military shipment. However, in the future, the Obama administration should look deeper into Bahrain's political dynamics before picking sides.

Morgan Roach is a research associate for the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

This article first appeared on NYTimes.com.

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