Turning an aircraft carrier is notoriously difficult maneuver; shifting a whole fleet even trickier. Even so, there is serious talk about the U.S. government moving the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet from its current home base in Bahrain as a result of continuing unrest in the Kingdom. A paper released today by U.S. Navy Commander Richard McDaniel, who recently completed a stint with the Brookings Institute, is perhaps one of the most significant additions to this current discussion among senior officials in Washington. In his paper, McDaniel rightly suggests, "The situation has the potential to deteriorate quickly and degenerate into an environment that is no longer hospitable to U.S. access."
More than two years of protests against the dictatorship in Bahrain has left the U.S. government struggling to find ways to pressure the regime into reform. McDaniel's paper underscores the pressing need for the U.S. to do so. The Fifth Fleet is the Obama Administration's biggest card, one it's so far been hesitant to use. However, ongoing problems in Bahrain have sparked serious conversations among senior Washington officials who acknowledge that the U.S. Navy should have a contingency plan in case it needs to leave Bahrain in a hurry - either because the repression reaches such an embarrassing level that the U.S. cannot be seen to be allied with such a regime or because the situation locally becomes so volatile it's unsafe for the fleet to stay. Serious government reform in Bahrain would go far to prevent either from occurring and the U.S. needs to ramp up its efforts to press for reform.
Until now, Bahrain's ongoing human rights violations have not prompted the U.S. government to withdraw the fleet. Thousands of arrests, widespread torture, dozens of deaths and a failure to bring senior officials to justice has not met the threshold of unacceptability and shamed the U.S. into leaving. But there is growing disquiet in the State Department and elsewhere that a real solution to the political crisis in nowhere in sight, that Bahrain is a volatile and unstable ally, and that a new plan for the fleet should be considered. Voices in Congress have also started to publicly question the suitability of Bahrain as a host for the U.S. Navy.
Today's McDaniel paper lays out alternatives for where the fleet might go. "Clearly, the biggest threat to U.S. access is not democratic reform that leads to a constitutional monarchy, but a lack of reform that result in continued instability, unrest, and the empowerment of radical leadership," he writes.
It's a huge decision -- removing the fleet from Bahrain will make other dictatorship allies in the region twitchy and eyes will pop in Saudi Arabia. The U.S.-Bahrain military relationship is deep and expensive. Bahrain was designated a U.S. "Major Non NATO Ally" in March 2002 and the U.S. has sold Bahrain $1.4 billion worth of weapons since 2000. Although some weapon sales are on hold or are at reduced levels from that planned before the uprising began, arms sales -- as well as military and anti-terrorism support to Bahrain -- have continued over the last two years. The U.S. has had a naval presence in the country since 1948, ensuring the flow of oil and other shipping through the Strait of Hormuz and serving as a prominent reminder to Iran of U.S. commitment to its interests. The current U.S. base in Bahrain is huge, covering over 100 acres and housing about 5,000 U.S. personnel and families.
Bahrain needs to be told that the presence of the Fifth Fleet is not automatic and that the U.S. government's relationship with the ruling family is not unconditional. For decades, the U.S. mistakenly backed autocracies in the Middle East in the name of stability, but learned that the calm of repression is a false one that inevitably bubbles over. Key opposition and human rights leaders remain in prison in Bahrain. The kingdom's economy looks shaky. Those who criticize the King of Bahrain on Twitter are jailed, peaceful protests are suppressed and violent ones becoming more popular. The failure of the Bahrain government to implement meaningful reform makes large-scale instability more likely and the U.S. needs to press harder for reform while it develops a plan B to protect its own interests.
According to today's paper, while Shuaiba Port in Kuwait is a possibility, "Designing Plan B around New Doha Port [in Qatar] is practical and makes sense because the port is under construction, and the United States could broker arrangements whereby U.S. combatants could be serviced, replenished, or permanently stationed at the facility. Stationing naval forces in Qatar is quite feasible because a defense pact with the government already exists and the Qataris have been extremely accommodating when hosting the U.S. military."
Bahrain's ruling family should realize that Commander McDaniel's analysis puts them on notice that they are not indispensable to U.S. interests and that many in Washington are increasingly exasperated at their broken promises of reform. This paper crystalizes a reality: The Fifth Fleet serves U.S. interests and it is not meant to be a cover for the Bahraini government's wanton abuses of human rights. Those interests are undoubtedly put at risk by an escalation of instability. The kingdom's failure to act has left little doubt that it's time to talk about moving the Fifth Fleet.