I’ve been watching the events in Bahrain with considerable interest. Not because I think we can influence events one way or the other, in fact I think our best course is to sit tight and wait events out. I am however, amazed at the naivete shown by many American journalists about the country and about region of the Middle East as a whole.
No one, perhaps, symbolizes this overall lack of perspective more than Nicholas Kristof, who I follow on my Facebook page and who has been in the country for the last week. To quickly sum up his reporting-it can best be described as “Stockholm Syndrome“-he’s fallen in line with the protesters without considering the entire sequence of events from an American point of view.
Now all of this would make for compelling drama if we did not have a stake in the outcome of events-but we do. If for no other reason because Bahrain is the home to the Fifth Fleet. Which is why, I find the cheerleading Kristof has been conducting more than a little strange.
Many here tell me that this is a turning point, and that democracy will now come to Bahrain – in the form of a constitutional monarchy in which the king reigns but does not rule – and eventually to the rest of the Gulf and Arab world as well. But some people are still very, very wary and fear that the government will again send in troops to reclaim the roundabout. I just don’t know what will happen, and it’s certainly not over yet. But it does feel as if this just might be a milestone on the road to Arab democracy.
For King Hamad, who has presided over torture, gerrymandering and lately the violent repression of his own people, I don’t know what will happen. Like HosniMubarak, he could have worked out a deal for democracy if he had initiated it, but he then lost his credibility when he decided to kill his own citizens. Some people on the roundabout were chanting “Down with the Regime,” and they have different views about what precisely that means. Some would allow the king to remain in a largely figurehead role, while others want King Hamad out.
Kristof-without coming out and actually saying it-has implied that is a good thing. He did come out and make a statement that to me was utterly astounding , about how no matter what happens, the Bahrainis would not throw the Fifth Fleet out of Bahrain.
He’s wrong about that-and if the King and the royal family go, and Bahrain becomes something other than a monarchy, Fifth Fleet better start thinking about where it’s going to move to. The decision to get rid of the command ships could prove a costly one.
As my Canadian counterpart noted a while back about Egypt,
Unlike most observers and bloggers, I’ve spent the last several years afraid of widespread “democracy” protests in the Middle East. Because so many people are so ignorant of the history of the region, or just overly optimistic, they don’t understand what the ramifications of what we’re seeing today.
To be fair, President George Walker Bush didn’t understand the ramifications of democracy, either. After the death of YassirArafat, Bush pushed for elections in the Palestinian Authority, over the objections of both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and PA President Mahmood Abbas, who feared that Hamas was poised to win large majorities. Bush prevailed and, predictably, Hamas won large majorities. The same thing happened in Lebanon after the Syrians evacuated, and Hezbollah won the balance of power.
Democracy, especially in the Middle East, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Just look at Iraq, an artificial country with deep sectarian divides. Freedom unleashed those divides and they proceeded to kill as many or more innocent people as Saddam did. Let’s assume that Iran became a true democracy tomorrow. There is absolutely no evidence that this would cause Tehran to end it’s nuclear program or abandon its enmity toward Israel. Sure, there’s a lot of wishful thinking to that effect, but no actual evidence.
That last sentence could well be applied to Kristof’s reporting from Bahrain. He needs to come back to the US for a while,eat American chow and start thinking like an American again.
Because these are the facts of Bahrain’s unique demographics. Bahrain has approximately 1.25 million people. Of that 500,000 are of foreign extraction and do not hold citizenship- roughly 275,000 Indians, 125,000 Bangladeshis, 45,000 Pakistanis, 45,000 Filipinos and 8,000 Indonesians, according to various media reports and government statistics.
That leaves roughly 750,000 native Bahrainis split between Arabs and descendants of Iranian descent. They are split, according to unofficial sources such as the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, approximately 33% Sunni and 66% Shia. The Royal Family is Sunni-the bulk of the rabble(UPDATE: Several people find this term offensive)people out in the Pearl Roundabout are not. Add to that a long history of Iranian meddling on the Island and you can say that you’re not exactly looking at a brave new world full of folks sympathetic to American interests.
And you can bet your bottom dollar that more than few Iranian stringers are in that bunch practicing a verbal form of anti-American subliminal suggestion. I’ll bet that number has increased in the last two weeks. I can practically guarantee it-because if Iran can get a government more sympathetic to its interests and more conducive to flows of Persians south across the Gulf, they know they have gained an important stepping stone to turning the tables on its American adversary.
Now add to that fact, the other reality- that economically, Bahrain’s interests are not allied with the United States, but with Asia and with Europe. The country is no longer a major oil producer, and the willingness of the monarchy to cooperate has been tested more than a couple of times in the past few years. Normally they are supportive-but not always. ( I was witness to one of the smaller occasions in 2003 and again in 2005 when they f*cked us at the drive through). The primary motivator for Bahraini support of US basing has been the implied provision of US defense of the island against attack. But take away the Royal family and its relationships with the other nations in the Gulf, and that particular incentive to help America does not possibly look so imperative.
Plus-we need to play the tape all the way to the end. And like in Egypt-a fully functioning democracy cannot spring up overnight. Depending on the timing of any subsequent elections, an overthrow of the King and the Royal Family could lead to just getting a new set of bullies in their place.
Now to be fair, Bahrain has some differences from Egypt. For one thing, the King granted limited reforms at the beginning of the last decade and the country has a parliament ( of sorts) and functioning political parties. The problem is, the strongest party in Bahrain is not exactly a beacon of hope to Western interests. To date they were kept in check by methods similar to what is used in Hong Kong to rig the results of Legco elections: coalition blocks and an unelected upper house. A straight up democratic election removes those obstacles. So what do we get as a result of that?
We get the Al Wefaq National Islamic Society, the strongest political party and a Shia religious party-that’s not exactly a friend of women or the freewheeling expatriate wanna be such as myself. In point of fact they have advocated some Islamic codes that can only be described as racist and South Africa like. For example, in 2004 and again in 2006 they advocated segregation of South Asia nationals from native Bahrainis because they “‘make the neighborhood dirty”. They also taken a hard line on women’s issues. They insist that on family law and family issues it is the role of the Islamic religious leaders to determine what is right in terms of dress and roles of women. Yea right-we’ve seen how well that works in other Arab countries.
Now the thing that Bahrain has going for it-if they choose to take advantage of it, is the structure of a functioning government through the vehicle of the monarchy. Reforms could be implemented and perhaps, if implemented over a drawn out period of time, it might allow other, more secular and more moderate groups to make gains. That’s where I see the western reporter’s cheerleading and lionizing of the demonstraters as a big mistake. If for nothing else it will fill their heads with ideas that are simply impractical to obtain. Just the facts please-and point out the down side of instant democracy in countries with no tradition of it. ( This is not Eastern Europe and these are not Europeans, which means they are starting out with the count 0-2 against them.).
The violence of Friday was not surprising-and neither is the pull back. They are simply a way of driving the point home that if the herd goes too far there are going to be consequences. ( With tragic consequences I might add). I have no doubt the army would be back in their faces in a minute if the government felt that there was no other way to squelch them. However for now- I think they have seen the need to have further reforms, but they have to be reforms that leaves the royal family intact. We’ll just have to wait and see where that leads.
And that, brings me back to the issue of Fifth Fleet. Would they get kicked out? If the Royal Family stays and Bahrain becomes a constitutional monarchy of some sort-I doubt it. If they get booted out though-I’d say the chances of an eventual eviction rise to just under 50%-downstream, not immediately. If we do get to stay-you can be damn sure the price of staying is going to go up monetarily and in other ways. Just give it some time. ( and don’t underestimate the influence that other Shias in other countries will have in making that happen).
If Fifth Fleet did get booted, what are the options? Since I am of the mindset that the current level of military presence in Bahrain and the rest of the gulf is too high to begin with, I can’t decide if us getting booted out is actually doing us a favor in the long run. But if it did happen, I think the immediate reaction would be to move the Witless Mt. Whitney to the Gulf and embark the primary fleet staff with a lot of the NAVCENT type functions being moved to either Europe or Tampa. I’ve long been a believer that some of the ancillary task force staffs ( specifically CTF-53 and CTF-57 and 54) could and should be moved to Europe, regardless of what happens in the Kingdom. ( the actual functions of moving parts and people could be handled by detachments wearing civilian clothes and keeping a lower profile than is now the case.).
Were the fleet staff forced to re-embark, I would forsee a whole host of command and control problems that would need to be worked through-those are best discussed in another time and place. But Fifth Fleet would still be able to do its mission-just that the workarounds would not be pretty or popular.
Foreign policy requires a hard hearted pragmatism that cannot be swayed by the emotions of a particular moment. In that regard Mr. Kristof and the rest of the cheerleaders are doing their country -nor the country of Bahrain-no favors by advocating for that which does not foster our long term interests. Be careful what you wish for-because if you wish incorrectly, you just might get it.