by Derek Davison
The US Naval Support base on Bahrain is the headquarters of Central Command’s naval arm (NAVCENT) as well as the US Fifth Fleet, so it’s a pretty important place as far as the US Navy is concerned. This poses some geopolitical problems for the US, insofar as it ties America in a mutual arrangement to a government, Bahrain’s Khalifa monarchy, whose human rights performance is, to put it charitably, dismal. Admittedly, human rights aren’t always such a big deal for the US when push comes to shove, but at a time when the Obama administration is trying to win hearts and minds in the Arab world, our support for repressive Arab regimes doesn’t help.
At the same time, Bahrain’s lousy human rights record mostly stems from its minority Sunni rulers oppressing and brutalizing their majority Shi?a subjects. At a time when the Obama administration is trying to “reassure” America’s jittery Sunni Gulf allies that the US is not shifting its regional posture toward Iran—which the Gulf monarchies believe must be backing every Shi?a government, political movement, or development throughout the entire Middle East—getting on Bahrain’s case about these human rights abuses (many of which have been aided by the efforts of a lot of Saudi and Emirati soldiers) doesn’t help.
Into this dilemma comes Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), who inserted a provision into the National Defense Authorization Act (which the House just passed on Friday) that appears to have irked the Bahrainis:
The House last week passed an annual defense bill that requires the Department of Defense to plan for a potential relocation of the US 5th Fleet if political tensions persist. Lawmakers made clear the provision was aimed squarely at putting pressure on the Sunni monarchy to respond to what they consider to be legitimate grievances of the majority Shiite population.
The reason that we have to do some planning now for that contingency is exactly because of the Bahraini monarchy’s failure to address the concerns of the people,” the sponsor of the provision, Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., told Al-Monitor. “If they choose not to address those concerns or do so in a heavy-handed way and somehow things end up getting worse there, then we may be forced to have to leave. And I don’t think any American policymaker wants to see that happen.”
The Bahraini government declined to directly comment on the legislative text but made clear its displeasure at being told how to run its affairs.
“There is no doubt in the relationship between our two nations,” a Bahraini official told Al-Monitor. “The defense relationship has been established to protect the country from foreign threats and to safeguard regional stability. This has nothing to do with Bahrain’s domestic affairs.
This is probably a lot of smoke with no fire. The Senate hasn’t yet voted on next year’s NDAA, and it’s not at all certain that the bill they pass will include this provision, which presumably means it would have to be hashed out in conference. Even if it gets into the final NDAA, the much bigger problem is that the US has scant few options for basing CENTCOM’s Naval command. Moving to another facility would be a massive undertaking in the best of circumstances.
But really, where is the Navy going to go? Qatar and the UAE are probably out, seeing as how they have a bit of a “slave labor” problem messing up their own human rights records (and Qatar has helpfully even started arresting foreign journalists for reporting on it). Kuwait’s human rights record isn’t much better, and at this point we’re running out of Gulf countries(Oman probably doesn’t have the facilities, Iran is obviously out, and there are a whole host of reasons why Saudi Arabia would be a bad choice).
If we look outside the Gulf to the rest of NAVCENT’s area of responsibility, the list of viable options doesn’t increase much: Egypt has its own human rights problems, for example, and Yemen’s chronic instability would seem to disqualify it. Djibouti might have been the logical alternative home for the Fifth Fleet, but administrative responsibility for the Horn of Africa was transferred from CENTCOM to the newly created AFRICOM in 2008, and basing CENTCOM’s fleet there now might pose significant logistical challenges. So even if Johnson’s provision does make it into the final NDAA, it’s transparently a bluff, all the more so given the Obama administration’s historic reluctance to hold Bahrain’s feet to the fire when it comes to human rights.
What makes things just a little bit more interesting, though, is that something like Johnson’s proposed study is probably going to be needed soon regardless of what Bahrain does about its political and human rights situation. In 2012, a group called the American Security Project produced a report that identified the naval facilities at Bahrain as one of the five US military installations most at risk due to climate change:
Military installations out of Bahrain, including U.S. “floating bases” — The U.S. military has built up military reinforcements into the Persian Gulf, many based out of Bahrain, to deter Iranian military from any possible attempt to shut the Strait of Hormuz (a key oil shipping route for the U.S.).
The most visible presence are U.S. “floating bases,” including the USS Ponce, which are used to support missions in areas where ground base action is not available.Since Bahrain is an archepelego with many coastlines, sea-level rise and extreme weather are pressing issues for the country and for our military installments in the region.
Here, too, the problem is finding alternatives; if climate change renders Bahrain unsuitable for the Navy at some point, chances are it will also render available facilities in Qatar and Kuwait equally unsuitable. If anything comes out of Rep. Johnson’s attempt to tweak the Bahrainis, maybe it will be the beginning of a long-term plan to deal with the impact of climate change on major US military facilities around the globe.