WASHINGTON – Despite its eagerness to show support for protesters across the Middle East, the Obama administration has lined up squarely with the royal family of Bahrain as tens of thousands march in the streets demanding reform in the strategic kingdom that is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.
While Bahraini demonstrators continue to denounce the monarchy’s reform offers as a sham, U.S. officials are praising the king of the Persian Gulf island nation, and have taken a lead role in pushing for negotiations aimed at satisfying Bahrain’s marginalized Shiite Muslim majority.
President Barack Obama has lauded the Sunni Muslim monarchy’s offer of talks as “an opportunity for meaningful reform.”
But U.S. support for the Khalifa family is drawing criticism from some among the throngs of protesters who have taken to the streets of Manama, the capital. Even some U.S. human rights advocates who have supported the administration’s response to the Middle East uprisings say they are concerned that in Bahrain, the administration may be taking too much on faith.
“They want reform so badly that they are willing to believe, a little too much, that it is, indeed, happening,” said Tom Malinowski, director of the Washington office of Human Rights Watch.
Since the unrest started in Bahrain on Feb. 14, the king has fired four Cabinet ministers, replacing three of them with Shiite officials, and released 23 political prisoners. But he hasn’t yielded to demands that he fire the longtime prime minister, who is also his uncle, overhaul the government and provide new powers to an elected parliament.
The U.S. approach reflects the desire of the administration to balance stability that protects American interests with the push for political reform.
What happens in Bahrain could have huge implications for the United States, which fears that the fall of the monarchy could lead to the rise of a Shiite-dominated government more sympathetic to the interests of Iran.