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The sickening spectacle of riot police firing shotguns and tear gas into crowds of peaceful demonstrators in Bahrain's capital of Manama Ton Thursday presents a diplomatic double-bind for the Obama administration precisely because it shows how weak the grip on power is of regional autocrats we've supported for decades. Even after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's strong warning to the country's leaders to show restraint after Thursday's bloodshed, government security forces attacked demonstrators again Friday morning as they were holding a funeral procession for those killed in Thursday's bloodshed -- this time adding helicopters to spray gunfire on people fleeing the scene as well as at doctors and ambulances trying to rescue the wounded.

These acts are the response of a desperate regime with its back to the wall lashing out in fear and panic. If anything it will only increase the protesters' demands for change, which started as a modest call for democratic reforms leading to a constitutional monarchy but over the last few days have escalated into demands for a total ouster of the current government. Bahrain's monarch, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, has been promising gradual reforms for at least a decade, but he has never managed to deliver. Now the chances for any sort of orderly transition to democracy seem even more remote given the widespread hatred and mistrust the government's brutal crackdown has bred among the populace. Going forward the government would appear to have just two choices: either iron rule imposed by unrelenting force or total capitulation.

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The U.S. dilemma in Bahrain is the same one it confronted in Egypt but on a smaller scale: Balancing its interests in maintaining stability in the region by supporting unpopular autocratic rulers who give us access to major ports and sea routes -- the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain -- while at the same time promoting reforms leading to the expansion of democracy and rule of law in a critical part of the world. The developments in Bahrain this week have undercut both efforts, with unpredictable consequences for the U.S. and the region.

Adding to the uncertainty is the sectarian divide in Bahrain, where a Sunni King and ruling elite preside over a restive population that is 70 percent Shiite and deeply resentful its exclusion from the nation's political and economic life. To make matters worse, the country is just a hop, skip and jump from neighboring Saudi Arabia, one of the most important U.S. allies in the region, whose Sunni rulers appear to be encouraging the violent crackdown in Bahrain. The Saudis have their own disgruntled Shiite minority concentrated in the country's eastern oil-producing provinces opposite Bahrain and fear the unrest there could easily spill across their borders.

The Obama administration was criticized for its tepid initial response to the uprising in Egypt, when it appeared to want to have it both ways: maintaining stability and encouraging democracy. If events there showed anything -- and the final outcome is still uncertain -- it's that dictatorships are inherently unstable and that trying to prop them over widespread popular protests is a recipe for even greater instability over the long run. If the U.S. wants to help Bahrainis make a peaceful transition to democracy, it's got to say so loud and clear -- and keep saying it until Bahrain's embattled rulers realize that it's ultimately in their own best interest to see such a transition succeed.

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