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Bahrain protests and Obama's 'drop by' diplomacy

President Obama just happened to 'drop by' a White House meeting with Bahrain's crown prince today even as the government brutally suppresses protests. Why the secrecy?

By Clayton Jones / June 7, 2011

Demonstrations erupted again in Bahrain June 3 during the funeral procession for a 63-year-old protester, Salman Isa abo Idreas.

Credit: EFE/Mazen Mahdi/Newscom

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Of all the Middle East protests, Bahrain’s poses the most delicate test for President Obama.

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The small kingdom is home to America’s Fifth Fleet and is of particular concern to Sunni-led Saudi Arabia, which regards the majority-Shiite protests in Bahrain as a proxy battle with Iran. Yet the government crackdown has been particularly brutal, even targeting women for torture.

No wonder then that Mr. Obama had to hide his meeting today with the Bahraini crown prince.

The president didn’t have the meeting on the official White House schedule. Yet he was able to “drop by” the office of National Security Advisor Tom Donilon just about the time a meeting began with Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.

The crown prince is regarded as the lonely reformer in Bahrain’s ruling family, worthy of consulting but not in a visible way that might confuse people that the US condones the crackdown. His great-uncle, Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman, is the conservative – and brutal – one, defending the country’s minority Sunni elite against the pro-democracy rabble with an iron fist. He might also have the power to boot out the US Naval base.

“Drop by” meetings are often used by presidents to send or receive messages in situations that need delicate diplomacy. The Dalai Lama, for example, gets such treatment, so as not to offend China by holding an official, cameras-clicking meeting.

Prince Salman is a graduate of American University in Washington, and thus may have an appreciation for the human-rights concerns of the US over Bahrain’s violence. Perhaps he might even take back a tough message from Obama that reform must come quickly and an end to violence even more quickly.

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