The White House says it is pushing friendly but autocratic governments in the Middle East to accelerate political and economic reforms, a message that is raising fears in those countries about the strength of the U.S. commitment to its allies.
A day after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was driven from power by a popular uprising, President Obama called Jordan's King Abdullah II, among others, to emphasize American support for greater political openness. Obama expressed his "conviction that democracy will bring more — not less — stability in the region," according to a White House account of the calls.
Diplomats from some Middle East nations say the Obama administration's response to the Egyptian uprising has made them question how much U.S. support they would receive in the face of any anti-government demonstrations in their own countries.
Leaders in the region "didn't miss it when Obama came out to say it was time for Mubarak to go," said one Arab diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
U.S. officials have also been trying to reassure allies of Washington's continued backing. The State Department, in particular, has been sending out messages that it seeks regional stability and intends to stand by its friends. And Obama's calls have affirmed a "strong commitment to supporting a more peaceful and prosperous Middle East in close consultation with all our regional partners," the White House said.
But the administration's tepid public backing for Mubarak and its backroom machinations to push him aside have provoked an alarmed reaction from officials in Saudi Arabia, other Persian Gulf states and Israel.
Saudi officials have complained for days about the "blatant interference" of foreign governments in the Egyptian crisis. The White House said Saturday that it would not comment on a Times of London report that Saudi King Abdullah chastised Obama in a Jan. 29 telephone call for failing to offer more support to Mubarak.
But a senior administration official suggested that other governments shouldn't expect too much U.S. help if they fail to make reforms and face mass protests.
When Middle Eastern officials ask whom the United States would support in a struggle between governments and their people, the U.S. message is that "if people are demonstrating, it's because they believe very strongly that governments are underperforming," the senior U.S. official said.
By comparison, Obama used his remarks after Mubarak's resignation to pointedly offer Egypt "whatever assistance is necessary — and asked for — to pursue a credible transition to a democracy." And administration officials have raised the possibility of a significant increase in funding for democracy programs that help establish and build opposition parties, a move that further unsettles the autocratic leaders of the Middle East.
There continues to be a sharp division within the administration over how much pressure to exert on allies whose cooperation is critical to U.S. priorities of counter-terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian peace effort and containing Iran. Jordan, for example, is the only country in the region other than Egypt to have a peace treaty with Israel.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's remarks during the crisis favoring an "orderly transition" in Egypt reflect the view of a camp within the administration that wants political reforms in the region to be conducted without the upheaval seen in Cairo.
But Robert Danin, a Middle East specialist and former State Department official, said the administration needs to bluntly warn other governments that they can expect the treatment Mubarak received unless they move to meet the demands of their people.
"We owe it to tell them that we are your friend, but that there are limits to how far we can stand by them," said Danin, now with the Council on Foreign Relations. "They don't have a blank check."
The administration clearly has no difficulty delivering that message to one government in the Middle East: Iran.
"By announcing that they will not allow opposition protests, the Iranian government has declared illegal for Iranians what it claimed was noble for Egyptians," Thomas Donilon, Obama's national security advisor, said in a statement Saturday that criticized Iran for prohibiting demonstrations.
"We call on the government of Iran to allow the Iranian people the universal right to peacefully assemble, demonstrate and communicate that's being exercised in Cairo," he said.