North Korea detonated a third nuclear device yesterday; experts said it was roughly twice as powerful as the rogue nation’s previous bomb, judging by the seismic waves the underground explosion generated. President Obama called it a highly provocative act and said it threatens regional stability, but U.S. policy toward North Korea is not expected to change in any measurable way.
On the other hand, the furious reaction from China has some observers hopeful that the Chinese finally will rein in their client state, and curb its appetite for nuclear development.
This situation is a good analogy for what is happening in other parts of the world, where metaphorically underground events are generating seismic waves, measured by those who pay attention to such things. In these places also, the U.S. administration’s reaction is dismissed as meaningless, and participants look to other, regional, powers to influence the future.
One of those places is Bahrain, where the smoldering embers of resentment linger after the protests of 2011. But these embers are fanned by both the attentions of the regional power, Iran, and by the efforts of the international Leftist human rights NGO’s who give hope and a voice to the Bahraini opposition forces. Meanwhile, the U.S. Administration remains largely silent in the face of an intransigent opposition.
When the Arab Spring swept the Middle East and North Africa in early 2011, opposition protesters in Bahrain saw in the Zeitgeist an opportunity to present their demands in street protests that would garner world attention. They smartly framed their position in terms of an Arab Spring moment, and succeeded in capturing the imagination of democracy activists worldwide. Their cause was adopted by well-meaning NGO’s and by the Western media, who thought they were watching the uprising of oppressed people against uncaring ruling elites.
Because this paradigm so dominated the way the world saw the situation, it was easy in 2011 to overlook the offer of peaceful negotiations extended by the Crown Prince, with the full authorization of HM King Hamad and the government. It was just as easy, for the same reasons, for them to overlook the churlish rejection by the opposition of that sincere offer.
The National Dialogue
When King Hamad called for a National Dialogue, the opposition continued to boycott the discussions. In August 2011, after Al Wefaq, the leading opposition party, had walked out of discussions, Human Rights First, an international NGO, intoned solemnly that the American Administration should clarify its position on the National Dialogue. HRF said that the Dialogue was discredited because the police were shooting protesters, opposition leaders were jailed, and other human rights violations were occurring.
King Hamad listened to the complaints about violations of human rights, and called for an independent international commission (BICI) to examine each of the charges brought. He accepted the findings of the commission, and is implementing the recommendations in the BICI report. The protesters who were convicted of crimes by closed military tribunals were released, the tribunals were closed, and new trials were held in open civilian courts. Opposition leaders have been released from jail.
On the 10th of February, as the National Dialogue reconvened, the government announced that 217 of the original 290 BICI recommendations already have been implemented by the government. Finally, Al Wefaq has consented to join the negotiations, but they instigated a week of street protests in advance, just to remind the nation of their tactics. They are emboldened by the lack of attention from the U.S. government, and by the intensity of support for their cause among the international Left, including many U.S.-based groups. These groups dominate the discussion of Bahrain on Capitol Hill.
It is time for the U.S. government to bring pressure to bear on the opposition groups, to keep them at the negotiating table. There is a clear window of opportunity now, while the country is at peace, to do what Bahrainis always have done: discuss their differences in an open and stable way.
The lack of American leadership during 2011 allowed the replacement of pro-American governments with those opposed to U.S. regional policy and goals. Are we better off because of the changes in Egypt or Tunisia? Are the Egyptians? Are the Syrians better off for having endured a vicious civil war, or are the people of Mali? What will a lack of American leadership produce in Bahrain and the rest of the countries of the GCC?
The National Dialogue is the way to make political progress peacefully, while preserving the stability of Bahraini society. It deserves the full support of all parties, domestic and international. If the reaction from America is tepid or withdrawn, then the door is opened to mischief made by the dominant regional actor in the gulf, Iran. And America, who soon may be facing a nuclear-armed Iran, will find an unstable ally in a critical position.