With a fresh wave of protests sweeping across the Middle East and threatening autocratic regimes, President Obama on Friday condemned the violence targeted against peaceful protesters but stopped short of pledging American support for their efforts to topple governments.
“I am deeply concerned by reports of violence in Bahrain, Libya, and Yemen,” he said in a statement issued while he was traveling on the West Coast. “The United States condemns the use of violence by governments against peaceful protesters in those countries and wherever else it may occur.”
He offered “condolences”—but not unconditional backing—“to the family and friends of those who have been killed during the demonstrations. Wherever they are, people have certain universal rights including the right to peaceful assembly.”
He urged the governments in the three countries “to show restraint in responding to peaceful protests, and to respect the rights of their people.”
The presidential statement came after another day of violence and deaths in the region. Of most concern to U.S. policymakers is the unrest in tiny Bahrain, which is led by a western-oriented government and is host to the U.S. Fifth Fleet.
Existence of the fleet limits Washington’s options. Unlike in the recent situation in Egypt, Obama does not really have the option of threatening a cutoff of U.S. aid. To do so could risk an eviction of the fleet, with unforeseen ramifications for the projection of U.S. military power in a strategically crucial region.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Senate State Department Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, however, called for a cutoff of U.S. aid to any security forces that break the law.
“U.S. law prohibits aid to foreign security forces that violate human rights, and there is evidence to apply the law today in Bahrain. I have asked the State Department to consider the application of our law and I urge a prompt decision. Attacks on civilians calling for political reform and on the press are assaults on the human rights and dignity of all people," Leahy said in a statement.
Bahrain is also different from Egypt in that even when President Hosni Mubarak surrendered power, the power elite remained basically the same. If the ruling Khalifa family gave up power in Bahrain, power would almost certainly shift from the minority Sunni monarchy to the majority Shiites, who would likely be far less hospitable to American interests.
That reality helps explain the furious government response to the protests in Bahrain. Police have fired rubber bullets and shot guns at protesters in Pearl Square, killing at least five—a not insignificant toll in a country of only 1.2 million people.
In Libya, the death toll has been much higher as longtime dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi tries to brutally suppress protests. The rights group Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Thursday that 24 people have been killed in recent days at the protests. Much of the violence has come from those who identify themselves as supporters of Qaddafi.
In Yemen, reports have been sketchier about deaths, but at least three protesters were reported to have been killed in the Yemeni capital of Sana'a, where 10,000 protesters gathered.
There were also reports of violence in Jordan, but no deaths were reported.