Reporting from Washington — Despite its eagerness to show support for protesters across the Middle East, the Obama administration has lined up squarely with the royal family of Bahrain as tens of thousands march in the streets demanding reform in the strategic kingdom that is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
While Bahraini demonstrators continue to denounce the monarchy's reform offers as a sham, U.S. officials are praising the king of the Persian Gulf island nation and have taken a lead role in pushing for negotiations aimed at satisfying Bahrain's marginalized Shiite Muslim majority.
President Obama has lauded the Sunni Muslim monarchy's offer of talks as "an opportunity for meaningful reform."
But U.S. support for the Khalifa family is drawing criticism from some among the throngs of protesters who have taken to the streets of Manama, the capital. Even some U.S. human rights advocates who have supported the administration's response to the Middle East uprisings say they are concerned that in Bahrain the administration may be taking too much on faith.
"They want reform so badly that they are willing to believe, a little too much, that it is, indeed, happening," said Tom Malinowski, director of the Washington office of Human Rights Watch and a former State Department official.
Since the unrest started in Bahrain on Feb. 14, the king has fired four Cabinet ministers, replacing three of them with Shiite officials, and released 23 political prisoners. But he hasn't yielded to demands that he fire the longtime prime minister, who is also his uncle, overhaul the government and provide new powers to an elected parliament.
The U.S. approach reflects the desire of the administration to balance stability that protects American interests with the push for political reform.
What happens in Bahrain could have huge implications for the United States, which fears that the fall of the monarchy could lead to the rise of a Shiite-dominated government more sympathetic to the interests of Iran.
Also at stake is Bahrain's continued willingness to host the 5th Fleet headquarters, which controls U.S. naval ships and aircraft operating in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Most months of the year, dozens of U.S. naval vessels are in the region.
The fleet's broad mission is to protect the flow of oil and keep open the Strait of Hormuz, the 34-mile-wide chokepoint at the entrance to the Persian Gulf. More than 20% of the world's petroleum shipments travel through the strait.
Bahraini protesters, who complain that the kingdom's mostly poor Shiites have no real political power and little access to the top jobs in business or government, on Tuesday again turned out tens of thousands of people — a large showing in a country of about 600,000 citizens, who constitute about half the total population.
In the first days of the unrest, it appeared that the Obama administration might turn its back on the monarchy. On Feb. 17, Bahrain security forces fired on demonstrators, killing seven people and prompting an angry call from Obama to King Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa.
But U.S. officials responded to a lobbying campaign by the Bahrainis and neighboring Saudi Arabia to continue supporting the king and his efforts to keep the peace. State Department officials were initially leery, while Pentagon officials, who have close ties to the kingdom, were more receptive.
The administration concluded that negotiations offered the best hope for a peaceful solution, said U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitive diplomacy.
The royal family, which itself is deeply divided on reform, isn't likely to support changes that would allow Shiites, who account for about 70% of the population, to take control. But the monarchy may grant them some representation in the upper house of the legislature and open more key jobs to them, say diplomats and others familiar with the conversations.
The two sides had been locked in a standoff. Protesters said they wanted commitments to reform before they talk, and the royal family and the United States argued that there should be no preconditions. On Thursday, Bahraini opposition groups agreed to enter talks, a move hailed by the U.S. as an important step.
It also is becoming clear that money will play a major role in the discussions.
Persian Gulf governments are discussing, under the auspices of the regional Gulf Cooperation Council, a proposal that would have them all chip in to offer billions to meet the demands of protesters in Bahrain as well as those in Oman. Some preliminary reports suggest that the group may be considering spending up to $10 billion in Bahrain alone.
The package would aim to replace some of the ramshackle housing in Bahrain's poorest neighborhoods and find ways to offer better jobs to meet a growing population of young and unemployed people.
Some reform advocates are wary of the subsidies.
The protesters "have been turning out because of a sense of political exclusion and anger at perceived injustice," Malinowski said. "Buying them off won't address those concerns."