Thursday, February 17, 2011

Kerry Plays With Fire by Backing an Uprising in Bahrain

By Barry Rubin

Senator John Kerry, who when I worked in the Senate was regarded as...let's just say as not a great genius, is now chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Kerry regards himself as something of a shadow secretary of state. If he ever actually gets that job we're all in trouble.

Kerry has been perhaps the most outspoken member of the Senate, now that Senator Arlen Spector is gone, in flattering the tyrannical government of Syria. Yet now Kerry is giving Bahrain the "Egypt treatment." He warned that government:

"Using tear gas, batons, and rubber bullets on peaceful protestors is the worst kind of response to a nonviolent demonstration. I urge the government of Bahrain to put an end to the violence and allow the Bahrainis to voice their call for greater political freedom. Historic protests are taking place across the Arab world and it is vital for every government to respond peacefully and listen to their own people.”

In principle,  these are fine sentiments, but in strategic terms they are foolish indeed. Bahrain is different from the Egyptian case in two important respects. First, the uprising in Bahrain is openly being led by islamists. Second, the problem of democracy in Bahrain is that the great majority of the population--about 66 percent--are Shia Muslims while the monarchy is Sunni. While Sunnis support the regime; Shias support the opposition. This is a sectarian conflict.

If the majority were to rule, Bahrain would probably align itself with Iran. Following the fact that Iraq has a Shia-majority government, the transformation of a Gulf Cooperation Council state to Shia rule would freak out the Saudis and other Gulf monarchies as the beginning of the end for them.

And Bahrain has also been for many years the home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, that small force that patrols the Persian Gulf. Would a democratically elected, Shia-majority government allow that base to remain? Possible but not probable.

Kerry didn't mention that the monarch offered concessions before the violence began and the demonstrators were chanting for his death.

So to play with backing an uprising in Bahrain is extremely dangerous and no doubt Kerry, like the sorcerer's apprentice, has no idea what he might be unleashing there. If he wants to urge on an uprising he'd be better advised to stop coddling and start criticizing his friends in the Syrian regime.

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