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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama may have seized the initiative with his lofty defense of military action in Libya but he has left more questions than answers about his emerging "Obama doctrine" and what it means for other crises in the Middle East.
Embedded in Obama's televised response to critics of his Libya policy on Monday night was an attempt to set forth his rationale for intervening militarily in some conflicts but not in others.
Obama used his speech to outline part of a broader Middle East strategy that aides have been crafting for weeks to try to counter complaints that his administration has struggled to keep pace with turmoil sweeping the Arab world.
But he was short on specifics and failed to even mention Yemen, Syria or Bahrain, the latest hotspots where popular revolts threatening autocratic rulers could have major implications for U.S. policy.
"It's still a work in progress," said Stephen Grand, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Obama is clearly trying to work out an approach that puts him on the right side of history."
While declaring Libya a "unique" case for limited use of U.S. military power to avert a potential massacre by Muammar Gaddafi's loyalists, Obama sought to stake out more of a middle ground on wider Middle East policy.
The message was that the United States supports protesters' democratic aspirations but will take military action only in concert with allies -- to uphold U.S. interests and deeply held values or where there was an overwhelming humanitarian need.
But, mindful of an American public occupied with domestic economic concerns and weary of wars in two Muslim countries, that was tempered by Obama's insistence that the United States would not act as the world's human rights policeman.
And his refusal to allow U.S. forces to seek "regime change" in Libya further underscored that his new doctrine carried strict limits.
Some analysts said Obama's nuanced approach could send mixed signals to an already troubled region and his speech quickly drew criticism from the left and the right.
Conservatives say Obama's reliance on multilateralism weakens U.S. global leadership. He has rejected the go-it-alone approach of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who was disdained internationally for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
"The Obama doctrine is still full of chaos and questions," former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin told Fox News. "U.S. interests can't just mean validating some kind of post-American theory of intervention where we wait for the Arab League and the United Nations to tell us 'Thumbs up, America, you can go now, you can act'."
Liberal lawmaker Dennis Kucinich chided Obama for justifying the decision to join the allied air campaign at least in part on Gaddafi's threats.
"Remember, that's what George Bush did. He said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction," Kucinich told MSNBC. "We've got to be careful about slipping into these wars."
Obama's emerging new policy is already facing a serious test in Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, each of which poses different challenges. What they have in common, however, is that the United States is monitoring events closely while avoiding any talk of a Libya-style military intervention.
Washington has relied so far on sharp prodding of Yemen's government, an ally against al Qaeda, for sweeping political reform and has all but acquiesced to Saudi intervention in Bahrain to help quell a Shi'ite revolt against Sunni rule.
Direct U.S. action seems even less likely in Syria, where the White House has denounced a government crackdown but is keeping hands-off in a country that has had a vexed relationship with Washington.
Editing by Cynthia Osterman.