Juliette Kayyem

Bahrain is the line in the sand

By Juliette Kayyem
April 9, 2011

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THE COLD War had a line in the sand. America and the Soviet Union could wage proxy battles in Vietnam, Latin America, and Europe. But when the Soviets made a move that was too aggressive, the United States threatened real war in order to preserve the previous ground rules. That moment was the Cuban missile crisis.

People throughout this Sunni Arab kingdom talk now of their own Cuban missile crisis. Amid the unrest and calls for democracy, their focus is on a regional cold war between Sunni-led nations and the “Shia crescent,’’ the term King Abdullah of Jordan used to describe Iran’s growth as a regional superpower. The test case of this cold war is not in oil-rich Libya, or terrorist-ridden Yemen, or Israel-bordering Syria. The line in the sand has been drawn in Bahrain.

Iran’s Shia hand is seen as a guiding force throughout the Arab uprisings, but especially in the protests against King Khalifa of Bahrain, a Sunni Muslim who leads a country with a Shia Muslim majority. The February violence instigated by the monarch’s bloodshed, his trigger-happy edicts, and his failure to live up to promises of reform caused great fear throughout the Gulf that Bahrain would fall to a Shia revolution.

On March 14, well aware that Khalifa had missed a significant opportunity for nonviolent reform, Saudi and United Arab Emirates troops entered Bahrain to “protect’’ essential facilities including oil and gas installations. The United States made some protests, but did not unleash hostile public statements about the move. It understood a line was being drawn.

But the US silence also reflected something else. As much as we are struggling to settle on the best policies to promote democracy and representative government, we also know that ours is not the only nation with foreign policy concerns about the changes occurring in the Arab world.

The fast-paced events, particularly in Egypt, have substantially altered the traditional groupings of the moderate Arab countries — Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain). Many feel that US efforts against the Taliban and Saddam Hussein essentially handed Iran two new allies. Lebanon and Syria have long had close ties with Tehran. Bahrain would not be allowed to go down so easily. The balance of power in the Middle East is, for them, at stake in Bahrain.

“In Bahrain, we could see a Shia government aligned to Iran form, a civil war unleashed, or we could support stability,’’ one senior government official told me. “We had only one move. There is no fourth option.’’

Western commentators often argue that the Arab uprisings show the errors in our deal with the devil. For too long, we supported autocrats and monarchs to ensure stability and satisfy our insatiable need for oil. For many in these Sunni Arab nations, that account is only half the story. They point out that they were also strong allies in supporting America’s war on terror, in supporting (or at least not being openly hostile to) the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and in backing airstrikes against Libya and sanctions against Iran.

The Obama administration often reminds us that every nation across this region is unique, and the forces of change will play out differently, as will America’s interests, on a nation-to-nation basis. But Americans would be short-sighted not to understand that much of the Arab world also views these changes as part of an ideological war that could alter the balance of power in favor of Iran.

It may be that these attitudes in the Gulf are incorrect. But they are strongly held. And our silence has made these nations confused by US policy. As the present ambassador ends his post here, Obama should immediately appoint a person who can speak for and be accessible to the White House.

Next year marks 50 years since the United States challenged the Soviet Union’s placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba. Like Cuba, Bahrain is a small island country. Bahrain may seem less dramatic, but there is no doubting its significance for the Arab world. It’s their cold war, but it is still our problem.

Juliette Kayyem is former homeland security adviser for Massachusetts and most recently served as assistant secretary at the US Department of Homeland Security.