PARIS, March 14, 2011 — Next to the events in Libya, the situation in Bahrain may seem like a sideshow, but for the U.S., the stakes there are in fact much higher; for this island nation is the home base of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, which guarantees the safe passage of millions of barrels of oil every day from the Persian Gulf. It is also a key piece in the dangerous game of chess that is being played between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
A Sunni monarchy has always governed Bahrain, and the Saudis, who fear Iran, prefer to keep it that way. There are some experts who argue, amazingly in my opinion, that if the Shiite majority takes control in Bahrain, Iran will be hurt and Saudi Arabia helped. But they do not explain why the Iranians would support the uprising if it would lead to the weakening of their own influence, and I cannot bring myself to believe that these experts know what is good for Iran better than the Iranians themselves.
For the Saudi King, only one thing is certain. Right now, there is a Sunni government, and that government is friendly. If it is overthrown, no one, not even our best experts, can know for certain what will replace it.
The expert is concerned with the question, “What will happen if the Shiite majority takes power?” The tendencies of his mind and the character of his values inclines him to downplay the dangers of a revolution and to derive solace rather than fear from its prospects. The Saudi leader, on the other hand, is occupied by quite another question – not “what will happen?” but rather “do we want to find out?” And so intent are they on not “finding out” that they have sent 1200 troops into Bahrain to prevent their ever knowing what may have been.
This was a courageous decision on the part of the ailing King; for it had to have been taken in the full knowledge of a possible backlash. History shows that a revolution becomes more violent when a foreign country intervenes. The French Revolution sank with all its glories into the great Terror when the Austrians and the Prussians intervened with their arms. But such analogies must not be carried too far. The Austrians and the Prussians did not enter Paris until 1814, and in 1793, they came nowhere near to saving the head of the French king. The Saudis, on the other hand, have entered Manama, and as long as they stay, the monarchy will survive.
This situation presents the Obama Administration with a dilemma, which though sticky is not without its charms. On the one hand, the Administration cannot afford to let the Bahraini court fall. On the other hand, it cringes at the thought of seeing blood on the streets. One hopes that the presence of Saudi forces will demoralize the protestors and put an end to this revolt, for the time being at least. This scenario is not only most ideal, in my opinion, it is also most likely – a happy state of affairs.
Benjamin Ra is a graduate student in International Affairs at Sciences Po Paris. American foreign policy is his main interest. Read more of Benjamin’s writing in A Word on the National Interest in the Communities at the Washington Times.
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