Bahrain Tests Obama’s Principles

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Shortly after President Obama announced bombing runs over Libya, he gave the following explanation for his actions: “The core principle that has to be upheld here is that when the entire international community almost unanimously says that there’s a potential humanitarian crisis about to take place, that a leader who has lost his legitimacy decides to turn his military on his own people, that we can’t simply stand by with empty words; that we have to take some sort of action.”

That was Libya. Since then, White House officials have made clear that Obama will deal with humanitarian outrages on a case-by-case basis. Not every tyrant that threatens to slaughter people in cold blood gets airstrikes. Denis McDonough, the deputy national security adviser, put it this way in a briefing to reporters. “We don’t make decisions about questions like intervention based on consistency or precedent,” he told reporters in a briefing. “We make them based on how we can best advance our interests in the region.”

So let’s look at what has been happening in Bahrain, which the Washington Post highlights today on its front page in a must-read article. Bahrain is ally of the United States, and the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, with some 3,000 military personnel. Peaceful protesters have been shot by government forces; medical workers have been beaten; opposition leaders have died in detention, with what Human Rights Watch has characterized as signs of “horrific abuse“; access to health services has been blocked. Amnesty International now says 400 opposition activists are unknown. The Washington Post reports that last week the country’s only independent newspaper was taken over, and its editor was forced to resign.

The U.S. has condemned the actions of the Bahrain government, even as senior White House officials struggle to smooth things over with Saudi Arabia, which has been pushing the crackdown. But there have been no calls to appeal to the U.N. Security Council. No sanctions proposed. No calls for Bahrain’s leadership to leave the country. No announcements about the future of the Fifth Fleet.

In this context, it is worth remembering one other statements by President Obama.

I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.

President Obama can be a president who defines support as little more than stern rhetoric in the face of horrific abuse. He can be a president that defines support as air strikes when civilians are threatened. But if he wants to claim a moral rationale for the latter, he must take moral responsibility for the former. His legacy will be both, not the one he chooses.