A youth waves a flag at an abandoned military camp in Agedabya, Libya. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Washington — President Obama is challenging his administration to formulate a new Middle East policy that emphasizes political and economic reforms to bolster U.S. allies now threatened by the protest movements sweeping the region.
Administration officials say Obama is urging beleaguered governments to enact reforms that would satisfy the popular craving for change while preserving valuable partnerships on crucial U.S. interests, from oil security to counter-terrorism and containing Iran.
With those allied governments under pressure from their citizens, the U.S. is confronting the likelihood of having diminished influence over whatever political order emerges. But a greater risk is that Washington could be seen as trying to prop up crumbling regimes and could alienate the rising pro-democracy leaders.
Diplomats say it would be difficult for the president to openly call for sweeping political change in such key countries as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Jordan, which are run by royal families allied with the West. Direct criticism of longstanding, friendly monarchs could be seen as an abandonment and encourage even more protests.
Administration officials who spoke on background because they were not authorized to discuss policy-making said the president and other key White House figures have pushed reforms in private calls, making the case that such changes are for the leaders' own good.
They have told the Saudis they should support efforts by the Sunni royal family in neighboring Bahrain to work out a new power-sharing arrangement with Shiite Muslims, who make up the majority of the country's population and who have been leading the street protests in the tiny kingdom.
Mindful that Bahrain hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which, among other tasks, protects oil shipments through the Persian Gulf, the U.S. has pressed Saudi Arabia to encourage Bahrain to make a deal, and has asked it to chip in money to help make sure the reforms satisfy the Shiites, a senior administration official said.
"We have the same objective — we want stability in Bahrain," the official said.
The official said the administration's scramble to persuade leaders to implement reforms was partly defensive. "If the leaders who've promised things don't deliver, you've got the possibility of further unrest and deeper violence" that would further imperil U.S. interests, he said.
The White House also has told diplomats to expand their outreach to the allies' opposition leaders, rising political figures and others who operate outside official government circles. Though some outreach already exists, the administration failed to anticipate the scale of the unrest.
Aides said Obama recognized the need to shift gears soon after the Egyptian street protests began Jan. 25. He warned national security aides that they should anticipate further upheaval "not just in countries where there are protests, but in countries where there have not yet been protests," said a senior administration official who was at the meeting in the White House Situation Room.
Obama spoke for about 10 minutes, telling staff members they were facing a fundamental change in the region and that the U.S. needed a new policy.
"The president concluded by telling us … we wouldn't be simply responding to protests in individual countries, but revisiting our entire approach to take into account the changes that are taking place," the aide said. Obama directed them to elevate democracy and the expansion of political and economic rights "as core interests of ours in the region."
The new strategy was also a reaction to disappointing results from the administration's original policy. Obama came to office determined to avoid the appearance of interfering in other nations' affairs. The goal was to distinguish his administration from that of predecessor George W. Bush, who had lectured Arab states and others on the need to democratize.
But Obama has lived through nearly two years of foreign policy setbacks. When Iran cracked down on street protests that erupted after its 2009 elections, he was criticized for not doing enough to support the demonstrators and losing an opportunity to pressure Iran's theocracy.
The president has made muted statements about China's violations of human rights, giving higher priority to disputes with Beijing over currency and trade.
Yet the paltry results of that approach and the ascendance of a team of pro-democracy advisors at the National Security Council appear to be having a pronounced influence on the president's actions and rhetoric. Younger aides including Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes and Michael McFaul, a Stanford University professor on leave, have been strong internal voices for pro-democratic movements in the Middle East.