The spirit of popular uprising that in a matter of weeks has toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt has now spread to several other countries in the region. Iran, Libya and Yemen have all seen protests this week. But the trickiest situation for the American government to react to could be the one in tiny Bahrain.A small archipelago kingdom in the Persian Gulf, Bahrain is home to fewer than a million people — and the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. Therefore, as was the case in Egypt, the U.S. finds itself treading carefully — at least publicly — as an important strategic ally experiences unrest.
As The New York Times points out, Obama’s press conference on Tuesday provided an illustration of the issue. While the president criticized the Iranian government for “gunning down and beating people who were trying to express themselves peacefully in Iran,” he did not directly address the demonstrations in Bahrain, where two protesters have also been killed. Instead, “speaking to other restive countries, including Bahrain, Mr. Obama directed his advice to governments, not protesters, illustrating just how tricky diplomacy in the region has become.” Speaking of the region, Obama said that “each country is different, each country has its own traditions; America can’t dictate how they run their societies, but there are certain universal principles that we adhere to.”
In an Op-Ed for the International Herald Tribune Wednesday, Graham E. Fuller, former vice-chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, wrote that the fall of the regime in Bahrain would leave the future of the U.S. base uncertain:
This is a place run by an oppressive and corrupt little regime, long coddled by Washington because the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is headquartered there. The future of the base is far from secure if the regime falls.
The Navy Times reports that 6,100 personnel are assigned to the U.S. base in Bahrain, and about one third live off-base. A 5th Fleet spokeswoman told the Times the protests are not happening near the base, and no evacuation plans are in the works.