WASHINGTON - If President Barack Obama wanted to place Washington "on the right side of history" during the ongoing "Arab Spring", his reaction to recent events in Bahrain will likely make that far more difficult, according to a growing number of analysts and commentators here.
While his administration has become ever more outspoken against repression in Syria and Yemen - not to mention Libya, where Obama has called for regime change - it has remained remarkably restrained about the escalating crackdown by the Sunni monarchy against the majority Shia population and prominent pro-democracy figures.
The strongest criticism in weeks came from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Tuesday night at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum here when she appealed for a "political process that advances the rights and aspirations of all the citizens of Bahrain" and asserted that "security alone cannot resolve the challenges" facing the government.
More than two dozen people have been killed by security forces since the government declared martial law Mar. 15, while more than 400 others have been arrested or are otherwise unaccounted for, according to international rights groups. Three detainees have died in custody, at least one apparently from "horrific abuse", Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Tuesday.
Last weekend, HRW accused the regime of creating a "climate of fear", particularly in Shia neighbourhoods and villages where night-time raids appear designed mainly to instil terror among the mostly poor residents.
Professionals, including doctors, lawyers, and human rights activists, have not been immune from the repression. Media critical of the government have been effectively muzzled, bloggers arrested, local journalists hauled into court, and foreign journalists expelled. Even star football players have been booted off the national team and arrested for taking part in peaceful protests.
"Things are getting worse, both quantitatively and qualitatively," according to Toby Jones, an expert on the Gulf states at Rutgers University. "It seems that across the board – from allegations of torture to reports of sweeping arrests – the regime has not just continued its crackdown, but intensified it."
"And while it has justified it as restoring law and order, what it seems to be doing is pursuing a vendetta; that's the only way to explain the severity of the situation," he added.
At the White House, however, silence has prevailed, suggesting to many observers that Obama is effectively acquiescing in, if not condoning, what is taking place.
That impression got a big boost when Defence Secretary Robert Gates visited Saudi Arabia last week in an apparent effort to mend ties that were badly frayed by Washington's support for the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February and by its initial opposition to the deployment Mar. 14 – that is, on the eve of the martial-law declaration - of some 1,500 Saudi and Emirati troops to Bahrain with the apparent intention to strengthen the resolve of King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa to crack down hard against the pro- democracy movement.
Emerging from a meeting with King Abdullah, Gates claimed for the first time to have "evidence that the Iranians are trying to exploit the situation in Bahrain."
That remark stood in sharp contrast to his dismissal during his last trip to the Gulf three days before the martial law declaration of Saudi and Bahraini charges that Tehran was behind the unrest.
Moreover, when asked whether the presence of Saudi troops to Bahrain had been discussed with the king, Gates replied with a curt "No." The Pentagon chief also indicated Washington was not giving any thought to moving its naval base - home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet - in Bahrain anywhere else.
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Indeed, Washington's relative silence about the repression in Bahrain appears to be motivated chiefly by two major geo- strategic considerations: maintaining its base and other military facilities in the tiny kingdom; and keeping in the good graces of its giant next-door neighbour, Saudi Arabia, which clearly sees the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain as part of a zero-sum struggle against its regional rival, Iran.
"Bahrain is like Cuba for you," said one member of a delegation from the Majlis al-Shura, Abdullah's advisory council, which met with U.S. officials and think tanks here last week to explain the Saudi position on regional developments.
"Iran is using the Shia as a tool of Persian policy," said another. "The most important oil and petrochemical facilities in Saudi Arabia are within 60 miles of Bahrain. We have no choice," he added.
But that perception, and Washington's apparent acquiescence in it, risks backfiring on a number of different levels, according to analysts here who expressed hope that this week's trip to Saudi Arabia and the UAE by Obama's national security adviser, Tom Donilon, will convey a very different message than that delivered by Gates's comments last week.
As repression intensifies and with no prospect for meaningful political reform that would given them a share of power, Bahrain's Shia population, which makes up between 60 and 70 percent of the country's citizenry, is being radicalised, according to Jones.
"I don't think we're past the point of no return yet where the radicalisation of the Shia is permanent, but we're not far from there," he told IPS. "Donilon's trip might be the moment when the White House becomes a bit more insistent, but the message needs to be delivered more urgently than it has been."
Beyond Bahrain, however, the crackdown and the Saudi and UAE intervention in support of it could also undermine other U.S. interests in the Gulf, notably in Iraq where key elements of the ruling coalition government and even the clerical establishment in Najaf have mobilised in support of Bahrain's Shia community.
The intervention "gives Iraq, newly dominated by Shiites with close ties to Iran, an excuse to make common cause with Iran in supporting Shiite insurrection in Bahrain," retired U.S. Amb. Chas Freeman warned in a recent talk to the Asia Business Council in Riyadh.
"Outright alliance between Baghdad and Tehran to this end would have far-reaching adverse implications for Gulf security. The strategic stakes Bahrain are higher than many outside the region appreciate," he added.
Finally, Washington's failure to strongly denounce the repression and its apparent efforts to appease the Saudis undermine its pose as a champion of human rights and democracy in region, exposing it instead as a cynical player of realpolitik, according to Chris Toensing, director of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP).
"There is a strong and rising current of disgust in the region at the Saudi role in the season of Arab revolts where, at every turn, they have encouraged the harshest repression possible," he said. "And, if you look at the timing of Gates's past two trips (to the region), people assume that the U.S. is being solicitous of its strategic partner and acquiescing in Saudi efforts to mount counter- revolutions."
"There's a strong suspicion that at least tacit consent was given to the Bahrainis and Saudis to do their worst in exchange for Arab League support for the no-fly zone in Libya," he added.