Brutal Bahrain plays vital role to U.S. gov't

Capt. Ted R. Williams, executive officer of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, welcomes the king of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, aboard the Eisenhower May 17, 2009, in the Atlantic Ocean.
Getty Images/ U.S. Navy

THE PENTAGON - The free flow of oil, the containment of Iran and the defeat of al Qaeda, those are the stakes in the Persian Gulf and why the U.S. Navy has about 30 warships assigned to its 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain, CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reports.

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The world's attention was focused Thursday on the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom. Bahrain's capital is under lockdown after government troops attacked protesters overnight. At least five people were killed. Hundreds were wounded. In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Bahrain's government to show restraint.

The U.S. Navy has maintained a presence in Bahrain since World War II. The kingdom plays a vital role in protecting American interests.

"This whole area depends upon the ability to maintain naval and air forces in the region," said David Mack, a scholar at the Middle East Institute who once served as U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.

And it's not just Bahrain. It's Kuwait, which is the staging area for operations in Iraq. It's Qatar, where the headquarters for U.S. military operations throughout the Middle East is located along with an air base used by bombers flying strikes in Afghanistan.

It's all part of a deal that's been in effect for 60 years. The U.S. provides the shield behind which the Gulf states pump oil.

"The one thing that the U.S. and its allies cannot tolerate in this part of the world would be interruption of oil shipments from the region," Mack said.

That means preventing Iran from ever making good on its threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world's oil moves.

And it means keeping Osama bin Laden from ever realizing his dream of taking back the holy sites of Saudi Arabia.

"Destabilization is their game plan," said Mack. "It weakens the ability of the United States to maintain itself in the area and prosecute efforts against al Qaeda."

It is hard to think of anything that could do more damage to American interests than chaos in the Persian Gulf.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.