Bahrain gets different treatment, of course, because it hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, helping the U.S. military project its might in the Gulf and contain Iran. U.S. military leaders have backed up the State Department in urging King Hamad to reform, but balk at any statement or action that they fear would jeopardize their base. While they acknowledge that Bahrain's repression of its Shiite population plays into Iran's hands, they worry about what would happen if the Shiites won their rights. One U.S. commander recently told me, "If there were one-man, one-vote in Bahrain, we wouldn't be here."
In fact, the most prominent leaders of Bahrain's dissident movement say they do not oppose the U.S. military presence in their country. No one knows whether that sentiment will hold in the face of continued repression, but from the U.S. point of view, that is an argument for urgency in demanding reform, not caution. Bahrain's Shiite majority isn't likely to be kept down forever. It is surely in the U.S. interest to be seen supporting its legitimate aspirations before disappointment in the United States devolves into rage.
The problem with U.S. policy toward Bahrain is not that it takes geopolitics into account. It's that U.S. officials may be calculating the geopolitics incorrectly. There is a growing feeling in the Middle East that, however high-minded Obama's rhetoric about democracy may be, the United States will always line up with its autocratic Sunni allies in the Persian Gulf against their opponents, especially if those opponents are Shiite. To many, it looks like the United States opposes dictators like Syria's Assad not for the sake of oppressed people, but to aid one side in a Saudi-Iranian cold war. The Iranian government, as well as every anti-American group in the region, benefits from this perception. Bahrain is the place where America can disprove it.
In May 2011, Obama condemned the Bahraini government's use of "brute force" and said there could be no "real dialogue" in Bahrain "when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail." The administration should be projecting more of that kind of clarity and urgency today -- for the sake of both principle and national interest. Weapons sales to Bahrain should remain suspended until the government eases up on peaceful protest and resumes political reform. While it is true that the U.S. security partnership with Bahrain gives it a degree of influence with the ruling family, it is time to convey what is equally true -- that America's military presence on the island won't be sustainable if the government responds to protest by intensifying violent repression to an intolerable point. If Bahrain's rulers believe the United States will continue to depend on them no matter what they do, they will be less likely to heed U.S. concerns. Showing a willingness to reconsider the partnership may be the best way to save it.
When we were released from detention, we walked out to the courtyard of the police station, where Rajab, the activist, waited for us. A youth I later interviewed told me that police had made him shout "down with Nabeel Rajab" as they beat him after an arrest. But here was Rajab, having a good-natured conversation with policemen and government officials. Nearby, a well known blogger who had been arrested with us calmly debated a police official who was upset because the activist had accused him of torture on Twitter.
Bahrain is almost broken, but not entirely so. The government is persecuting its critics, but not killing them on a large scale as in Syria. As everyone we met told us, Bahrain is a small country: The protagonists on both sides know each other, and there still seems to be room for compromise. But the window is rapidly closing, and once it shuts -- as in Syria -- it will be hard to turn back. Preventing this outcome by holding Bahrain to the commitments it made to the Bassiouni Commission, and encouraging political compromise, is America's paramount interest in Bahrain.