Burns and McCain square off on Syria and the Asia 'pivot'

MANAMA - Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) argued in public  Saturday over whether the United States is still exerting leadership in Syria and around the Middle East region.

"For all the logical focus on pivots in other directions, the fact remains that the United States cannot afford to neglect what's at stake in the Middle East, a region in the midst of transformations every bit as profound and consequential as the changes that swept over Europe and Eurasia two decades ago," said Burns, the leader of the U.S. government delegation to the 2012 IISS Manama Security Dialogue.

Burns told the assembled audience of officials and experts from 28 countries that the Obama administration's "pivot" or "rebalancing" toward Asia was not a zero-sum game and he said that American attention to the Middle East and the Gulf has not and will not diminish.

"It's a region today that is full of both threat and promise. It's a region that demands American leadership despite the pull of other challenges and the natural policy fatigue that comes after a decade in which our national security strategy was dominated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said.

Sitting next to him on the panel, McCain said his frequent travels around the region had convinced him that all kinds of regional actors have concluded that America is receding in terms of leadership and commitments - and that perception has negative consequences.

"The idea that the U.S. can pivot away from the Middle East is the height of foolishness," said McCain. "This perception, that the United States is disinterested, disengaged, or distracted, can be very dangerous. It can lead to our enemies to test America's friends and allies in this region through even more threatening actions and it could bolster the more radical and  hard line elements among our friends who say they must take matters into our own hands because America can't be trusted."

"I'll talk straight with you, it's difficult to convince the American people right now, both Republicans and Democrats, that we need to more in the world, not less," he said. "But we need greater leadership.'

Burns responded by saying that while there are limits to American influence, he was confident that over the long term, America's actions would convince countries in the Middle East that American leadership will continue.

"We don't have the luxury of pivoting in one direction and neglecting our interests in others. That's easy to say and the proof is in the actions we take. I think you'll continue to see from the United States very active engagement and very active leadership," he said. "There is no substitute for the ability and capacity of the US to articulate a vision and try to mobilize coaltitions of countries to achieve those aims."

McCain used the example of Syria to counter Burn's assertion that the regional perception of a lack of American leadership was unfounded.

"So many [regional leaders] want greater U.S. engagement and leadership in advance of the interests and  values we share and unfortunately there is a  visceral sense I get among the leaders in the region that they are not getting as much support from the United States as they desire," McCain said. "This is the perception in Syria, where everything that people said would happen if we did intervene has now happened because we have not intervened."

On Syria, Burns said that the balance of power on the ground is clearly shifting against the regime and that the Obama administration is considering additional ways the "can help speed the genuine transition of power," ideally through a political transition to new leadership based on the Geneva plan developed last summer.

"The longer the conflict in Syria continues, the greater the human tragedy for the Syrian people and the greater the danger of spillover into a neighborhood that already has more than its share of problems in security," said Burns.

McCain said the divide over whether to increase American activity and leadership abroad was not a partisan one, but rather a battle in Washington between internationalists and isolationists, both of which can be found in either party.

"I want to work with my Democrat colleagues, especially the president, to ensure this region can progress to the more hopeful and peaceful future that all of us seek," McCain said. "And if the president does the right thing, if he leads and takes greater actions to support our friends, interests, and values, in Syria, Libya, or anywhere else, he'll certainly have my support."

The Cable

Why did the Bahraini Crown Prince snub the USA?

MANAMA — The Bahraini crown prince effusively praised Britain in his speech to an international conference here Friday evening -- but barely mentioned the United States, to the surprise of his international audience.

"I would personally like to thank many in the West who were very kind to me and what I have tried to achieve by promoting dialogue between all of the disparate groups here in the kingdom of Bahrain. Your support to me has been invaluable over the difficult past 18 months," said Crown Prince Salman Bin Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa at the opening dinner of the 2012 IISS Manama Security Dialogue, referring to the internal sectarian conflict that has roiled the kingdom.

"However, I would in particular like to thank the diplomats, the leadership and the government of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth of the UK," he said. "You have stood head and shoulders above others. You have engaged all stakeholders. You have kept the door open to all sides in what was a very difficult and sometimes unclear situation. Your engagement and your help in police reform and judicial reform, and your direct engagement with the leadership of the Kingdom of Bahrain and with members of the opposition, has saved lives, and for that I will be personally eternally grateful. Thank you."

The crown prince then went on to thank the governments of Singapore, Korea, and Japan. "You deserve our thanks and our respect. Thank you very much," he said. He also thanked the members of the BICI commission that investigated the violence in Bahrain and he thanked his own Interior Ministry for its handling of the conflict.

His only mention of the United States came as a thinly veiled criticism of America's failure to make progress in the Middle East peace process.

"For the United States in particular, it is managing its relationship with the state of Israel and the stalled peace process, which is important to us all," Salman said.

Most attendees at the speech praised the crown prince for giving a speech that called for dialogue and reconciliation with the Bahraini opposition. But delegates from several countries noted over post-dinner drinks that his failure to say anything positive about the United States, which keeps the Navy's Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and supplies the island kingdom with more arms than any other country, could not have been an accident or an oversight.

Was the crown prince's snub a reaction to the fact that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointedly decided not to attend this year's Manama Dialogue? After all, she was the featured speaker at the very same opening dinner the last time the conference was convened in 2010. Also, Clinton will be traveling to Tunisia and the UAE in the coming days, but won't stop in Bahrain.

More likely, according to conference delegates, the crown prince's speech was a reflection of the Bahraini royal family's frustration with U.S. policy, which has sometimes included sharp criticisms of Manama's treatment of its own citizens during the recent crisis and its failure to fully implement the BICI report's recommendations.

"There continue to be delays in fully implementing the report's recommendations, particularly regarding accountability for official abuse, limits on freedom of expression and assembly, meaningful security sector reform, and a political environment that has become increasingly inhospitable to reconciliation," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said only two weeks ago. "We are also concerned about rising violence in Bahrain.   In the last month, police, protesters, and bystanders have been killed.  We continue to urge all Bahrainis to pursue their political objectives peacefully and the Government of Bahrain to exercise restraint in responding to peaceful protests."

The Cable asked Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in open session how they felt about the snub -- both declined to answer. But Bahrain's Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed Al Khalifa said in a subsequent session that the United States was not excluded in the Crown Prince's speech because "all friends in the West were thanked."

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said during a press conference on the sidelines of the conference Saturday that the British government was committed to continuing its engagement with Bahrain. 

"Our embassy is very actively engaged here, as we are as ministers, in keeping in touch with the government but also with opposition groups in Bahrain. We give what's clearly appreciated as good and clear advice about the need for dialogue, from the opposition as well as from the government," he said, adding that more progress needs to be made by the government in implementing reforms.

"We're a country that has a close and friendly relationship with the whole of Bahrain, with the country of Bahrain, and I hope that's appreciated all around and I think the speech of the Crown prince was a very good sign of that," said Hague.

Some U.S. experts saw the crown prince's remarks as the product of a U.S. government policy that has sought, perhaps unsuccessfully, to both satisfy Bahrain's critics in Washington while also keeping the royal family happy by continuing arms sales during the crisis. In trying to satisfy both constituencies, the Obama administration may have alienated both.

"In some sense, the crown prince was right," said U.S. non-government delegate Shai Franklin, senior fellow at the Institute on Religion and Public Policy. "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."

Overall, most U.S. officials and experts here in Bahrain say that the U.S.-Bahrain relationship is still close and strong, and the crown prince still enjoys an overwhelmingly positive reputation in Washington.

One government delegate pointed out that Bahraini royal family has long personal ties to England. The king and the crown prince were educated there, several members of the royal family vacation or own property there, and the political ties between the two countries go back generations.

"The Bahrain-UK relationship is a long one," the delegate said. "And it is a love affair."