The House passed its version of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act on Friday, and it includes a little provision, courtesy of Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) that requires the DoD to look into alternative bases for the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, the one attached to Navy Central Command (NAVCENT) and currently based out of Bahrain. This is because Bahrain has a large and growing human rights problem with respect to the minority Sunni monarchy’s treatment of its majority Shiʿa subjects, a sizable portion of whom would like to have some sort of ability to govern themselves. Instead of recognizing the basic rights of those discontented subjects, Bahrain’s ruling Khalifa family likes to import their police force from Sunni populations in places like Pakistan, Jordan, and Yemen (supplemented by timely military assistance from their Sunni neighbors in the Gulf), who have no ties to the local population and are happy to bash skulls on command. Some members of Congress are justifiably a little concerned about the US being so closely tied to a regime that is in the habit of violently suppressing political opposition and democratization movements.
Johnson’s provision (assuming it survives the Senate and conference) is pretty much a bluff (even he admits as much), meant to coax the Bahrainis to reform so there’s no problem keeping the fleet there. My newest piece for LobeLog looks at the alternatives to basing the Fifth Fleet at Bahrain and, well, they’re not pretty:
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.
However, my surprise conclusion is that the Navy actually does need to be studying alternatives to Bahrain, regardless of the political situation. The reason might
surprise completely depress you, so please go check it out!