- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Obama administration has denounced the crackdown on protesters in Bahrain. But whether President Obama realizes it or not, stability in that country is a vital U.S. interest.

Bahrain is a small but critically important state in a mostly hostile region. It’s a longtime U.S. Persian Gulf ally and site of the headquarters of the U.S. 5th Fleet, which Bahrain’s King Hamad has described as being of “geo-strategic importance.” It’s also one of the more modern, Western-oriented Arab states, free of most of the excesses of Islamism. Bahrain sent a Jewish woman, Houda Nonoo, as ambassador to the United States, something not even Israel has done.

Bahrain’s Sunni-dominated government is facing a growing popular revolt among its Shiite-majority citizens, fanned by activists sympathetic to the Islamic Republic in Iran. Rather than expressing concern over a key ally being destabilized, the White House intervened in Bahrain’s internal affairs by insisting that the government enter into dialogue with the opposition. This legitimized regime opponents and weakened our friend’s hand.

The most pressing strategic issue is Iran, which has long coveted Bahrain. In 2009, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, Iran’s former interior minister and speaker of Iran’s Parliament, described Bahrain as Iran’s “14th province.” If the island state fell under the sway of an Iranian-backed political insurgency, America would lose its naval headquarters and be significantly weakened in the region.

Bahrain’s rulers seem to have drawn two important lessons from recent events in the Middle East. One is that longtime U.S. allies faced with street demonstrations can expect no support from Mr. Obama. King Hamad could easily wind up like Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak, driven from power by people that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton now heaps with praise.

The second lesson is that the United States will take no meaningful action against regimes that crack down on the opposition. The operative example is Libya, where strongman Moammar Gadhafi - once teetering on the brink of being deposed - has successfully fought back against the rebellion that sought to topple him. Mr. Obama, whose declared policy was that Col. Gadhafi had to leave power, chose to sit on the sidelines rather than make the minimal military effort it would have taken to dislodge the Libyan regime.

Given these facts, Bahrain’s rulers reached the logical conclusion: Send in the troops. The king declared a state of emergency and began clearing out demonstrators in the capital of Manama by force. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates contributed 1,500 soldiers under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a move that the White House has denounced but which should send a message to the tone-deaf Obama national-security team that there is a serious problem.

At this point, it’s reasonable to ask whether Mr. Obama has a strategy other than a misguided belief in his own infallibility. The Obama administration treats the continuing Middle East crisis like a graduate-school seminar exercise rather than a serious national-security challenge. Mr. Obama refuses to lead but interferes enough to make the situation worse. He has no clear plan, no sense of priorities and has made no lucid statement of American interests. The crackdown in Bahrain is another significant blow to perceptions of U.S. power, informing American friends and foes alike that the current occupant of the White House is a weak president who is growing weaker.