Originally Posted on New Voices
President Obama missed a major opportunity last week: to become repressed Shiites’ patron and steal Iran’s thunder.
The crackdown in Bahrain, more than any other Arab country, offer a stupendous opening to US foreign policy and the regional balance of power. The United States should consider an aggressive policy against the Bahraini monarchy, solicit the popular support of the oppressed Shiite population, and replace Iran as their potential patron. The gigantic naval base in Bahrain should be moved to Kuwait or India, and the Saudi Arabia should be threatened with losing its contracts with American military suppliers.
Barack Obama did make clear statements about Bahrain, but unless sanctions slip through his slips or threatening to pull out that base, Bahrain’s citizens won’t take him as seriously as he needs to be taken.
For anyone who needs specifics, here is the summary: Bahrain is among many other countries that have suppressed popular uprisings (i.e., peaceful protests). Bahrain is different than Libya and Yemen because the government is dominated by a minority (30%) Sunni regime governing over a majority (70%) Shiite population.
It is not so much Bahrain that the US does not want to offend – a number of other countries want the US navy’s business. It’s the Saudis. Saudi Arabia does not necessarily think Iran actually has control of what is going on in Bahrain. In 2009, Saudi Arabia invaded Yemen when a small group of Shiite rebels started making progress against the government there. No analyst thinks Iran was helping them, but Saudi Arabia insinuated it. Saudi Arabia wants to stomp out Shiite uprisings before there is one in their own backyard. Fifteen percent of the country is Shiite, and the Saudi royal family does not want to sacrifice oil profits to pesky things like social and economic concerns of a despised minority.
Saudi Arabia rolls in
The US cannot be Saudi Arabia’s lackey. The entire time the Obama Administration has focused on Israel in the eyes of the Arab world, it ignored the possibility that Arabs might need to contest their own governments first.
But as things build up, Iran will make the effort to establish a foothold in Arab countries. In 1982, Iran took advantage of the Lebanese Civil War and the Israeli invasion there to create Hezbollah. Iran cemented its role as patron to Lebanese Shiites – that does not have to happen in Bahrain, Yemen or Saudi Arabia for that matter.
A consistent American approach, like President Obama asserted the other night when talking about the Arab revolts, will go far for all Arabs. But reaching out to Shiites would give them something far more preferable to the repressive regime of Iran. Bahrain’s citizens want it.