I've just returned from Bahrain, the tiny island Arab kingdom in the Persian Gulf, which for 40 years has hosted a U.S. naval facility which, for more than 15 years, has also been the U.S. Fifth Fleet headquarters.
As Bahrain's political unrest reaches a boiling point, the U.S. Fifth Fleet increasingly finds itself a symbolic hostage in a struggle. Sectarian grievances in Bahrain are long, and often legitimate. While the U.S. Navy does not involving itself in local politics, it nevertheless has become a symbol of the close generational relationship between the Bahraini monarchy and the White House.
Officially, there is no consensus among the opposition regarding the future of the U.S. presence. Mutual distrust is high, though. When visiting the United States, many opposition representatives reassure that they seek no change in the status of the U.S.-Bahraini relationship; Iranian news outlets have, however, cited some of the same figures saying the opposite.
The Bahraini uprising is not sponsored by Iran, but there is no doubt that the Iranian government will try to hijack it for Tehran's own aims and will use its domination of the airwaves to incite the Bahraini public against the American naval presence. The widespread perception that Obama's withdrawal is equivalent to defeat in Iraq underscores the belief that, with enough pressure, the Americans will flee.
The United States picks no side in the broader Sunni-Shi'ite divide, although many diplomats and military officers retain bias against Shi'ites, falsely assuming Arab Shi'ites represent Iranian Fifth columnists. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Shi'ites, facing Western abandonment, feel they have no choice but to accept Iranian protection. Nothing did more to drive Iraqi Shi'ites into Iranian hands than the support by career diplomats and Gen. David Petraeus for re-Baathification.
Self-fulfilling prophecies cut both ways. As the opposition seeks to leverage American interests to their advantage, they say that the longer the United States sits on the fence in Bahrain, the less likely any new Bahraini government will be to acquiesce to the continuation of the U.S. military presence. Realistically, however, the United States will not turn against Bahrain's ruling family. To do so would destabilize other Gulf Cooperation Council states, and demonstrate that there is no reward for the ruling family's long friendship.
As the situation climaxes, both sides should consider the road not taken. Had successive U.S. administrations pressured more proactively for reform, the scenarios for American national security in Bahrain would not be so stark. At the same time, should the Bahraini Shi'ite opposition commit to continue the American presence, they could repair more than three decades of stereotypes and mistrust in American policy circles.