Shadow Government

The politics of stability in Bahrain

It should come as no surprise that Saudi Arabia has come to the aid of Bahrain's royal family with about one thousand troops crossing the causeway between the two countries. If more troops are needed to ensure that the al-Khalifa regime does not fall, the Saudis will oblige. Put simply, Riyadh cannot tolerate Shiite domination of its offshore island, whether or not the al-Khalifas remain in power.

A Bahrain that is ruled by its Shiite majority is one-third of the ultimate nightmare for the Sunni rulers of the desert kingdom. The other two-thirds are a revolt by the Shiite majority in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province, which could spill over from the troubles in neighboring Bahrain and a massive influx of Yemenis, many of whom are adherents of the Zaidi branch of Islam, and have little in common with Saudi Wahhabism.

Stability in Bahrain is therefore crucial for the long-term future of the al-Saud family as rulers of their eponymous kingdom. Indeed, Saudi Arabia's rulers fully recognize that because memories in the Middle East are very long, the fact that the Hejaz was a separate Arabian kingdom as recently as the 1920s until it was conquered by Ibn Saud and merged with his kingdom of the Nejd means that the break-up of their country is hardly impossibility.

Other Gulf States, notably Kuwait, whose rulers are close to the al-Khalifa, may join the Saudi effort to stabilize Bahrain. So might the UAE, which shares Saudi fears of Iranian domination of the island, which was once an Iranian province, and which continues to smart over the Iranian seizure of its islands of Abu Musa and the Tunbs in 1971.

Washington cannot sit idly by as these events take place. The 5th Fleet is headquartered in Bahrain, as is the naval component of Central Command. The departure of the Navy from Bahrain would mark a signal victory for Iran, even, as is likely, the fleet were to find a new home elsewhere in the Gulf. Washington has no choice but to support the Saudi intervention.

Unfortunately, Washington appears to be willing to offer little more than words, and its words no longer carry much weight. The administration's vacillation over Libya, coupled with the imminent withdrawal of combat troops in Iraq -- where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is becoming ever more authoritarian -- has underscored a growing perception of America's declining influence in the region.

Whatever happens in Bahrain will hardly change that perception. If, as is likely, the Saudis shore up the Bahraini regime, many will view the outcome as a victory for repression, and, given Qaddafi's recent successes against the rebels, a sign of the hollowness of American pronouncements about democracy. On the other hand, if some outside chance, the Bahraini regime falls to the Shiite opposition, the fruits of victory will be reaped by Tehran, not Washington, since one of the new government's first acts would be to expel the U.S. Navy.

One can therefore only conclude that, regardless of the outcome in Bahrain, the United States may be headed for even tougher times in the Middle East than those it has experienced in the past few years.


Shadow Government

Cedar revolution redux?

A word about Lebanon. Given everything else happening in the Middle East, it's easy to lose track of that country's plight. The last time most Americans tuned in back in January, Hezbollah -- backed by Syria and Iran -- had successfully engineered a bloodless coup, using threats of violence and intimidation to collapse the democratically-elected government of Saad Hariri and nominate its own candidate for prime minister. The fact that they chose to do so at precisely the moment that the pro-Western Hariri was being hosted in the Oval Office by President Obama only underscored the extent to which the maneuver was not simply an assault on Lebanon's democracy and independence, but a calculated effort to undermine U.S. interests and power in the Levant. For many, it looked to be the final nail in the coffin of Lebanon's Cedar Revolution, the popular uprising in 2005 that ended three decades of Syrian military occupation and brought Hariri's March 14th coalition to power. Lebanon, it appeared, had truly gone dark.

But not so fast. Bloodied and bruised, March 14th is not yet cowed. In mid-February, on the sixth anniversary of the bombing that killed his legendary father, Hariri strongly denounced Hezbollah's coup and declared that March 14th would re-constitute itself as a full-fledged opposition to the Iranian/Syrian/Hezbollah project in Lebanon. He vowed to fight their effort to derail the international tribunal investigating his father's murder, which is widely expected to unveil indictments in the near future fingering Hezbollah's central role in the conspiracy. Even more daringly, Hariri recently doubled down when he announced that the disarmament of Hezbollah would be resurrected as the centerpiece of March 14th's political program to save Lebanon's democracy, sovereignty, and independence. True to his word, March 14th yesterday released "Independence 2011," a new political manifesto aimed at securing Lebanon's freedom by bringing Hezbollah's arms under state control and bringing Hariri-père's killers to justice.

In short, rather than simply roll over and die, March 14th has courageously decided to stand and fight for their country's future by reinvigorating the Cedar Revolution. Toward that end, the coalition hopes to rally hundreds of thousands this Sunday to mark the revolution's sixth anniversary and re-energize the movement that has already once succeeded in liberating Lebanon from foreign domination. 

The re-emergence of a strong and determined Lebanese ally that enjoys mass support and is again willing to take on the Iranian-led axis presents an important opportunity for U.S. interests that should not be missed. The existence of such an ally in 2005 was the essential prerequisite that empowered diplomatic efforts, led by the United States and France, to end Syria's three-decade-long suzerainty -- an accomplishment that, at the time, seemed no less remarkable than the recent collapse of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. Indeed, in many ways, the Cedar Revolution was the progenitor of the peaceful, youth-driven upheavals that have swept much of the Arab world the past several months. The possible revival of "people power" in Lebanon, and the potential potency of its demands for national dignity, justice, and liberty, need to be understood (and acted upon) by U.S. officials as being very much of a piece with the broader tidal wave of freedom now crashing down across the Middle East.

Critically, of course, a revitalized mass movement on behalf of democracy in Lebanon will have as its natural targets Iran, Syria and Hezbollah -- the core of the region's anti-American "resistance." Ever since the outbreak of the Jasmine revolutions, U.S. officials have been frantically looking for a way to divert the regime-change contagion away from U.S. friends and in the direction of U.S. adversaries, first and foremost the mullahs in Tehran. The scorecard so far looks somewhat bleak. Whatever other blessings they eventually confer, it's a fact that the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia brought down longstanding U.S. allies. The rebellion against Qaddafi in Libya, while targeting a tyrant with rivers of American blood on his hands, looks in serious jeopardy of being brutally quashed. So the prospect that hundreds of thousands of young Lebanese may now once again be prepared to rush into the breach and throw Hezbollah, and its paymasters in Iran, on the defensive should be welcome news for the United States.

The Obama administration needs to be prepared to seize this opportunity. Most importantly, U.S. leadership is the sine qua non for resurrecting the powerful international coalition that originally backed March 14th and provided the Cedar Revolution with the sustained diplomatic, financial, and moral support that ensured its initial successes. Due to neglect and mismanagement, that coalition tragically began to unravel late in the Bush administration, and the deterioration rapidly accelerated under Obama. Now it needs to be rebuilt. France, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are the keys. The U.N. secretary-general can play an important role as well, especially since the main planks in March 14th's platform -- Hezbollah's disarmament and the Hariri tribunal -- are mandated by Security Council resolutions. None of it will happen unless driven by the White House with sustained presidential involvement.

Few events better encapsulated the growing perception of waning U.S. power in the Middle East than the Iranian-backed torpedoing of Lebanon's elected government just as its prime minister was visiting the Oval Office. It was a bitter humiliation for President Obama and a strategic defeat for the United States. But remarkably, just two months later, we may have an opportunity to begin reversing the tide thanks to the courage of the Lebanese people. If, indeed, reports of the Cedar Revolution's death do turn out to be greatly exaggerated, the United States should again be ready to lead.      

Alex Wong/Getty Images