U.S. Military Keeps Close Eye On Egypt, Bahrain

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Protesters throughout the Middle East and northern Africa are pressing their governments for reforms. But the U.S. military is keeping an especially close watch on two countries: Egypt and Bahrain.

That's because both countries are key to the American military's ability to operate in the region.

A cargo ship transits the Suez Canal en route from the Mediterranean Sea to the Gulf of Suez at the city of Suez, Egypt, on Feb. 2. Egypt controls the canal, which is vital to U.S. interests. i

A cargo ship transits the Suez Canal en route from the Mediterranean Sea to the Gulf of Suez at the city of Suez, Egypt, on Feb. 2. Egypt controls the canal, which is vital to U.S. interests. Emilio Morenatti/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Emilio Morenatti/AP
A cargo ship transits the Suez Canal en route from the Mediterranean Sea to the Gulf of Suez at the city of Suez, Egypt, on Feb. 2. Egypt controls the canal, which is vital to U.S. interests.

A cargo ship transits the Suez Canal en route from the Mediterranean Sea to the Gulf of Suez at the city of Suez, Egypt, on Feb. 2. Egypt controls the canal, which is vital to U.S. interests.

Emilio Morenatti/AP

Egypt: A Canal Conundrum

Egypt's importance can be summed up pretty simply, says naval expert Norman Polmar: "Egypt has the Suez Canal, which is vital," he says.

A dozen or so U.S. warships pass through the canal each month on their way to the Persian Gulf.

There's also a steady stream of oil tankers heading the other way to the U.S. and Europe. When the canal closed for eight years, starting with the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the effect was devastating, Polmar says.

"Oil prices skyrocketed because it cost more to transport oil from the Middle East to Europe and to even North America around Africa," he says.

Military officials doubt the canal could close again. But if it does, Gen. James Mattis, the top American officer in the region, said the United States would respond diplomatically, economically and, if necessary, militarily.

So Egypt matters. The U.S. may denounce the governments of Yemen and Libya for cracking down on dissent. But those countries are not vital to U.S. national security like Egypt or Bahrain, a tiny island nation halfway down the Persian Gulf.

Bahrain: Location, Location, Location

Bahrain is the home base of the Navy's 5th Fleet.

"The key issue here isn't simply a base. That's part of it," says defense analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "But the key issue is Bahrain's strategic position and the overall security of the area."

In this photo taken Jan. 20, 2010, a U.S. Navy vessel seen from the deck of a U.S. ship docked in Manama, Bahrain, patrols the harbor area of the tiny island nation. Bahrain is the home base of the Navy's 5th Fleet and has a strategic location in the Persian Gulf. i

In this photo taken Jan. 20, 2010, a U.S. Navy vessel seen from the deck of a U.S. ship docked in Manama, Bahrain, patrols the harbor area of the tiny island nation. Bahrain is the home base of the Navy's 5th Fleet and has a strategic location in the Persian Gulf. Hasan Jamali/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Hasan Jamali/AP
In this photo taken Jan. 20, 2010, a U.S. Navy vessel seen from the deck of a U.S. ship docked in Manama, Bahrain, patrols the harbor area of the tiny island nation. Bahrain is the home base of the Navy's 5th Fleet and has a strategic location in the Persian Gulf.

In this photo taken Jan. 20, 2010, a U.S. Navy vessel seen from the deck of a U.S. ship docked in Manama, Bahrain, patrols the harbor area of the tiny island nation. Bahrain is the home base of the Navy's 5th Fleet and has a strategic location in the Persian Gulf.

Hasan Jamali/AP

That strategic position is right in the middle of the Persian Gulf. So, Cordesman says, U.S. warships can ensure the flow of oil, keep an eye on Iran just across the Gulf and pursue Somali pirates farther to the south.

Close Ties

The U.S. maintains close ties with both Bahrain and Egypt. Part of that centers on the military.

"The Egyptian military has trained with our military. The Egyptian military has gone to school with our military. They have become friends; they know each other on a personal level," Navy Secretary Ray Mabus says. "It's not an abstraction. And so there's a lot of communication that can happen."

The same is true with Bahraini officers who train in the United States. Pentagon officials say those contacts give the U.S. leverage to help move those countries toward peaceful change.

But Mabus says those close relations are missing in Libya. "The relationship with Libya is new. It's only happened since [leader Moammar] Gadhafi agreed to give up his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, and so you don't have that base," he says.

Striking A Balance?

The Pentagon's top military officer, Adm. Mike Mullen, is touring the Middle East this week, visiting key U.S. allies: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates.

Mullen praised Bahrain's leaders for talking with protesters, calling it a model for the region. "The United States is in a position to support, you know, the peaceful evolution of the kind of change that we see," he told Al-Jazeera.

Polmar, the Navy analyst, says Mullen is trying to strike a balance, siding with democratic protesters without alienating American friends. "He has to walk that fine line because some of those despots are our allies," Polmar says.

But Michael Vlahos, who teaches strategy at the Naval War College, says for all the talk of relationships, American leaders simply looked the other way for decades and supported repressive regimes. That no longer works.

"The fact is there is no fine line," he says. "There is no way to support autocratic regimes and at the same time support free expression in a democratically pluralistic way."

That may be true — but at least so far, the Obama administration has not had to choose between America's military interests in the Middle East and the people.

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