No free pass for Bahrain

February 26, 2011

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AS POLITICAL upheaval continues in the Middle East, the United States can’t pick and choose which countries’ democratic aspirations to support. Iran’s government is a longtime foe of the United States, while nearby Bahrain, a firm American ally, plays host to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. But the pro-democracy forces challenging both regimes all want the same thing — recognition of their rights and their dignity — and President Obama would hurt long-term US interests by supporting Iranian protesters while letting Bahrain’s government slide.

Iran, a major regional power under the control of religious dogmatists and the Revolutionary Guards, has little in common with Bahrain, a small island kingdom where a Sunni Arab monarchy rules over a Shiite majority fed up with pervasive discrimination. Yet Iran and Bahrain both have populations that will long remember how America responded to their democracy movements.

After Bahrain’s monarchy’s first used deadly force against peaceful protesters, Obama was too cautious. He let it be known he was “deeply concerned’’ — a greeting-card sentiment more appropriate to a friend’s illness. While Obama need not make any public statement about the political reforms at issue in Bahrain, he should at least stress that repressive violence is no more justified there than it is in Iran. The Shiite protesters have shown an encouraging level of moderation and reasonableness, and US encouragement will validate their concerns and could promote conciliation with the monarchy.

In this case, realism and idealism call for the same course. US policy will appear callous and cynical if Obama speaks out any less vehemently for the crowds in Bahrain’s capital than for the Iranian reform movement. Any such perception can damage US relations with the governments that may emerge from the pro-democracy wave. The future of Bahrain, Iran, and many other countries around them will likely be determined by the young protesters now in the streets. President Obama must put America carefully but squarely on their side.