Obama seeks a new approach on Mideast

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.

As evidence of the evolving approach, administration aides cite Obama’s September speech to the United Nations General Assembly, in which he stated that his allegiance was not to particular rulers but to whole populations. “The idea is a simple one — that freedom, justice and peace for the world must begin with freedom, justice and peace in the lives of individual human beings,” he told the U.N.

Two weeks before the protests began in Egypt, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gave a notable speech in Qatar, warning that Arab populations were tiring of “corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order.”

“The region’s foundations are sinking into the sand,” she said.

But no one appeared ready when Tunisia erupted into protests that toppled longtime strongman Zine el Abidine ben Ali. And the administration appeared caught flat-footed again when demonstrations spread to Egypt.

“They were advised by a number of people that there could be a problem in Egypt,” said Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national security advisor under George W. Bush. “No one foresaw exactly what came, but they didn’t seem prepared for anything. The succession crisis for an 82-year-old, ill [Hosni] Mubarak was obviously around the corner.”

In part that was because counter-terrorism had become the driving force for the Washington security establishment. Friendly but autocratic governments like Mubarak’s were considered essential allies, partly because those governments also feared the rise of Islamic extremists.

Administration officials acknowledge that the U.S. wants to preserve that cooperation by maintaining close ties to traditionally moderate Arab countries. That was part of the reason U.S. officials first tried to stand by Mubarak, and why their criticism of the Bahraini royal family has been lukewarm.


Democracies have been less responsive to U.S. priorities. Turkey, for example, is nominally friendly to the West but declined to allow U.S. ground forces to move through its territory before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Part of the challenge has been tactical. In Libya, the U.S. has needed to evacuate hundreds of American citizens without provoking a violent response from Moammar Kadafi.

Since the crises erupted in Tunisia and Egypt, the National Security Council staff has been meeting six, sometimes seven, days a week.

At the request of national security advisor Thomas Donilon, a team at the National Security Council that includes Power and McFaul prepared a report on democratic transitions throughout history to see “what worked and what didn’t,” according to an NSC official.

The group’s advice is finding its way into Obama’s speeches. A constant warning from the president during the Egyptian crisis, for example, was that the Mubarak regime needed to meet with opposition leaders. That message was rooted in the NSC team’s research.

“The big lesson learned from the literature on transitions from autocratic rule is, if you begin a dialogue with the opposition, you can craft the evolutionary path to a democratic transition,” McFaul said in an interview. “If you wait and don’t take those steps, there’s polarization — and that leads to revolutionary change.”

McFaul and others are also preparing basic democracy-building materials to help Middle Eastern governments, including primers on proportional representation and presidential elections.

If the U.S. wants stability in the Middle East, democratic government is a better bet than some of the autocratic regimes now teetering, McFaul said.

“The most stable regimes in the world are democratic regimes,” he said.

Times staff writers David S. Cloud and Ken Dilanian contributed to this report.