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Why there'll be no no-fly-zone over Bahrain

Mark Mardell | 11:48 UK time, Tuesday, 15 March 2011

For the first time, I think the "no fly zone" over Libya might actually happen. If it does, it will mean the traditional Western interventionism will have won over President Barack Obama's fear of dabbling in the Middle East.

A no-fly zone probably wouldn't help the rebels an awful lot. But that is not its purpose. It would ease troubled souls in the West and satisfy those who feel something must be done without being over concerned about the consequences or logical implications of that something.

Sometimes silence says more than words. There will be an embarrassed void, and determination to look in the other direction, rather than any discussion of whether such a no-fly zone should be extended to Bahrain. The very thought is ludicrous. Nor will there be a peep about arming the rebels. No thought of sanctions. In the end, it is the more important country, and more important region as far as the US is concerned. So no-one will want to talk about how to respond to any excesses.

But first, Libya. The dynamic is changing. Col Muammar Gaddafi is apparently poised to win, or at least win enough territory to split his country. Despite the Obama administration's extreme reluctance about a no-fly zone, one of their conditions has been met. The Arab League is behind the call. The French and the British are gung-ho for patrolling the skies and are drafting a UN resolution. Even US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has rowed back a little bit from his initially dismissive remarks.

A no-fly zone is a gesture, a symbol. I happened upon this blog post earlier today, discussing symbolic behaviour in a completely different political context, but the author's point is that it is more about self-validation than problem solving.

For Col Gaddafi seems to be doing pretty well murdering his enemies using only violence at ground level. Arming the rebels is another alternative. The danger is that they turn out to be not so good guys or indulge in massacres of their own. And of course it doesn't deal with the main point that training and organisation are as important as hardware. Invasion by troops is, of course, the sure-fire way to achieve regime change from the outside. Curiously, no-one seems that enthusiastic.

But the advocates of action haven't yet focused on Bahrain, where Saudi troops have been called to support the government. Of course, there are huge differences. Col Gaddafi has already killed a lot of his own people. The Bahraini authorities swing between tolerating and repressing opponents but there's been no massacre, no murderous attacks on protesters. This is a series of demonstrations, not a civil war. But presumably the Saudi troops aren't there to help enforce traffic regulations.

If this is about principle, then presumably those who want to intervene in Libya should at least promise protection to the Bahraini opposition as a warning to the authorities. A few jets swooping over head to make sure the military on the ground don't misbehave, perhaps? This is, of course, a fantasy. President Obama's spokesman, Jay Carney, has at least sounded concerned:

"We are calling on the Saudis, the other members of the GCC countries, as well as the Bahraini government, to show restraint; and that we believe that political dialogue is the way to address the unrest that has occurred in the region, in Bahrain and in other countries, and not to in any way suppress it."

They may listen. There may be no violence. If there is, it raises great questions. Despite President Obama's earnest urgings, Bahrain is not likely to turn into a democracy and the prospects for fair and free elections in Saudi Arabia are even more remote. Even these limited attempts to push them in that direction have soured relationships. While Obama's urgings have been timid, he has at least made a few noises. Those who want Top Gun over Libya don't even seem to have noticed the extraordinary events down the Gulf.

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