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U.S. needs to hold on to its few Middle East allies

Matar Matar, a former lawmaker with the Shiite opposition Al Wefaq society, reaches out to a well-wisher Sunday, Aug. 7, 2011, as he is carried in front of his home in Daih, Bahrain, on being released from prison pending trial.AP

Some say the Arab Spring has revealed the hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. The argument goes something like this: America only stands for human rights and democratization when and where it suits American interests. While the U.S. calls for the ouster of tyrannical dictatorships in Libya, Syria and Iran, a different standard applies to despotic regimes with which America shares economic or security interests, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Bahrain, as well as Egypt and Yemen.

Thus, critics say safeguarding human rights and supporting popular democratic movements is not really a cherished American value, but rather a pretext to topple governments unfriendly to America. 

This argument falls short. Let us concede that the U.S. response to the Arab Spring has not been monolithic and that America continues to maintain relationships with, and in some cases even arm, regimes that continue to commit human rights abuses. What critics fail to grasp is that American foreign policy, especially as it relates to the textured and nuanced political, religious and cultural milieu of the Middle East, is constrained by countervailing interests and values. 

The most obvious "value clash" is when America's security is at stake. Prioritizing American security doesn't mean we have abandoned our more idealistic principles or that such principles should be discarded as mere pretense. On the contrary, it reveals the challenges of international diplomacy. 

Let’s take the example of Bahrain. Bahrain's majority Shiite population is effectively barred from civil or military service by the Sunni-led government, ruled by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. The efforts to increase parliamentary checks on the king's (and his family's) power, to establish an independent judiciary and to enfranchise all Bahrainis, Sunni and Shiite alike, have been met with very limited success. 

Unarmed opposition movements, such as al-Wefaq, do not yet call for the king to step down, notwithstanding indiscriminate arrests and interrogations, economic woes, brutal police crackdowns on protesters, foreign media blackouts and more than 60 deaths related to the popular uprising. 

Al-Wefaq, though run by Shiite clerics, has made it clear it has no designs of rendering Bahrain any less of a liberally minded, cosmopolitan, financial hub than it has been in the past. It has also voiced a conciliatory approach to the U.S. -- stating publicly that, at least in the short term, the U.S. Fifth Fleet could remain docked at Bahrain's port. 

It is clear that the U.S. should throw its full weight behind al-Wefaq in the interests of furthering human rights and democratic values abroad. Even a staunch realist would agree that America's long-term interests in the region may suffer as protesters begin to see the U.S. as an obstruction to their freedom.

In light of al-Wefaq's apparently benign nature and given the litany of recent human rights abuses by the Bahraini government, why does the U.S. State Department continue to align itself with al-Khalifa (the Obama administration attempted to send $53 million in arms sales to the al-Khalifa regime in the midst of the uprising -- an attempt prevented by House Democrats)?

The answer can be encapsulated in two words:  stability and timing.

Circumstances dictate that now is not the time for drastic upheavals in Bahrain that could put the 25,000 troops of the Fifth Fleet, or Americans at-large, at risk. Iran is now threatening not only to close the Strait of Hormuz, but also to preemptively attack Israeli and American interests in the region. The ability of the Fifth Fleet to act swiftly and robustly, without looking over its shoulder, without having to siphon off a portion of its forces to protect installations in Bahrain, is essential to countering Iran's dangerous game of brinkmanship.

Any delegitimization of the al-Khalifa regime now would only serve the interests of Iran.  Contrarily, working with, and propping up, moderate elements within the al-Khalifa regime, as al-Wefaq itself is doing, will allow America to achieve its security objectives while still pursuing its loftier goals related to Bahrain's oppressed majority.  Al-Khalifa is a tried and true ally to America and its fight against international terrorism.  His regime is a bulwark against Iranian expansionism (Iran repeatedly calls Bahrain its 14th province). 

Moreover, Al-Khalifa's government has a defense pact with America's other strategic ally in the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia -- a country whose steadfast support America needs to contain Iran and to bring its nuclear program into compliance with international law. The Saudi government is deeply concerned about Shiites obtaining power in Bahrain, so close to its eastern province, where the Shiites have rallied against Saudi rule and where the main oil and natural gas fields lie. With relations already frayed between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, this critical juncture demands the U.S. take heed to Saudi concerns regarding Bahrain's stability.

Now is the time to solidify the bonds with the allies we have left in the Persian Gulf.

Nicholas Saidel is a research specialist at the Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis, where his focus is on counter-terrorism and national security issues.