A recent Brookings Institute policy paper, “No ‘Plan B’: U.S. Strategic Access in the Middle East and the Question of Bahrain,” makes an important case for the need for U.S. contingency planning in the Persian Gulf country of Bahrain in the event that the U.S. were to lose access to its naval base in the country. The paper’s author, Commander Richard McDaniel, writes, “In view of the ongoing political unrest, the possibility of losing strategic basing rights in Bahrain is something that should be carefully considered. Unfortunately, military leaders state there is no ‘Plan B’ if strategic basing in Bahrain is jeopardized.” The paper aims to “present viable Plan B alternatives and make recommendations that ensure U.S. access, diversify the U.S. footprint, and reaffirm the U.S. commitment to work through the challenging process of democratic reforms with Bahraini government and the Opposition.”
Naval Support Activity Bahrain
According to the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), Naval Support Activity Bahrain is situated in “the busiest 60 acres in the world.” Located on the main island of Bahrain’s archipelago, NSA Bahrain is centrally situated in the Persian Gulf, east of Saudi Arabia, across from Iran, and en route between Iraq and Kuwait to Qatar, the UAE, the Strait of Hormuz and the Indian Ocean. In 2009, on the subject of Bahrain’s strategic importance to regional and international security, retired General David H. Petraeus called the 300 square mile monarchy a “key partner” in the “developing regional security network” of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula.
The U.S. Navy’s presence in the suburban neighborhood of Juffair in Manama, Bahrain has steadily grown since 1971 and is home to approximately 6,093 military personnel and DOD civilian employees and 90 Tenant Commands, as well as Joint and Coalition Forces. The Fifth Fleet, which is hosted at the base, lists its mission as “forwarding U.S. interests, deterring and countering disruptive countries, defeating violent extremism and strengthening partner nations’ maritime capabilities” within CENTCOM’s area of responsibility. The base also hosts peacekeeping and training exercises, such as this year’s International Mine Countermeasures Exercise (IMCMEX 13), held from May 6 to May 30, which brought together representatives from 41 nations to practice “mine countermeasures, maritime security operations and maritime infrastructure protection.”
The Paper: No ‘Plan B’
The paper’s author, Commander Richard McDaniel, agrees with DOD’s assessment that the base in Bahrain “is unquestionably the United States’ most important command and control, logistics, and maintenance base essential to sustaining the U.S. maritime presence in the region.” But McDaniel recommends DOD finds and develops other suitable replacement options rather than risk a complete loss of access, should instability in Bahrain continue. McDaniel also describes the implementation of governmental reforms to counter this instability as being in line with U.S. strategic interests, despite the unwillingness of the U.S. government to more meaningfully pressure the Bahraini government.
Instability today is a result of the stagnancy of Bahrain’s “once vibrant economy,” according to Fred Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment, and the “lack of implementation of reforms by the Bahrain government” according to Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain. As Wehrey notes, “simmering violence and social polarization” culminate in frequent demonstrations by various opposition groups against the ruling monarchy, as they demand increased political representation and economic opportunity. U.S. Government statements express concern for “serious human rights issues in Bahrain,” according to a State Department teleconference in May 2012. Yet, as McDaniel points out, critics contend that the U.S. “has not fully backed democratic reforms because of its military presence in-country.”
Regional commentators also question whether the U.S. should try to use NSA Bahrain as leverage to encourage reform, given the Bahraini government’s slow commitment to change. For example, Fred Wehrey agrees with McDaniel’s opinion that the U.S. must develop alternatives, especially as a form of political leverage. In his policy paper, “The Precarious Ally: Bahrain’s Impasse and U.S. Policy,” Wehrey recommends that the U.S. “develop contingency plans with a long view. The U.S. Navy should prepare plans for the gradual relocation of the Fifth Fleet’s assets and functions away from Bahrain to potentially use as leverage to shift regime behavior.” A Washington Institute policy analysis paper puts forth a similar idea, arguing that “the most crucial U.S. challenge is encouraging royal political concessions without jeopardizing the Fifth Fleet headquarters.”
Continued unrest could also transform the political landscape, producing a “Bahraini government that no longer has shared interests with the United States and could ultimately require U.S. forces to depart,” writes McDaniel. Thus, the paper emphasizes that it is well within U.S. interests to take note of the opposition’s demands and actions because “the biggest threat to U.S. access [in the Persian Gulf] is not democratic reform that leads to a constitutional monarchy, but a lack of reform that results in continued instability, unrest, and the empowerment of radical leadership.”
McDaniel proposes a number of alternatives, including strengthening relations with Kuwait and Qatar so that the U.S. military presence in New Doha Port in Qatar and Shuaiba Port in Kuwait could be strengthened. McDaniel also mentions the option of building an offshore sea base, though “keeping naval forces overseas for a sustained period of time is no simple task,” and is expensive even in the friendliest and most “benign” of waters.
Opposition calls for a renewed push of demonstrations on August 14 underline McDaniel’s assertion that the U.S. must develop alternative plans in case unrest increases and jeopardizes the U.S.’s presence in the country. “Intermittent unrest in Bahrain,” according to McDaniel, means that the “odds of potentially losing access continue to grow.”