WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration, seeking to counter criticism it has struggled to keep pace with turmoil sweeping the Arab world, is crafting a new U.S. strategy for the region and will roll it out in coming weeks.
President Barack Obama has ordered senior aides to forge a policy he hopes will keep him on the right side of history as popular revolts shake the region but will not burn bridges with important autocratic allies like Saudi Arabia.
White House aide Michael McFaul told Reuters that Obama recognizes there is no “cookie cutter” approach to the fast-moving events shaking the Middle East and North Africa but that broad principles are guiding his emerging strategy.
Inside the White House, a small group of pro-democracy advisers is gaining greater influence over Obama’s thinking as the policy takes shape after uprisings toppled long-standing leaders in Tunisia and Egypt and as unrest hits Libya and other countries.
But Obama’s push for reform will be tempered by a desire to preserve longtime partnerships with Arab governments considered crucial to U.S. interests on everything from fighting al Qaeda to containing Iran to securing vital oil supplies.
The Middle East upheaval poses Obama’s biggest foreign policy challenge two years into his presidency. Worst-case scenarios include the violence spiraling out of control or a global recession brought on by spikes in oil prices.
“The key is to strike the right balance and make sure that fundamental change is encouraged without chaotic situations erupting,” said Brian Katulis, an expert at the Center for American Progress who has been consulted by the White House.
Obama and his aides have urged meaningful reform in private phone calls with Middle Eastern leaders, telling them “it’s in their own interest to be responsive to their people,” a senior administration official said.
One foreign diplomat welcomed Obama’s rhetorical restraint, saying it indicated a recognition that democracy is “not like instant coffee” and cannot be imposed from the outside.
But Obama, who has not spoken publicly on the Middle East situation since last week when he condemned Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s violent crackdown on protests, may be looking for a chance for a policy speech to put his personal stamp on his still-evolving strategy.
“We’ll be articulating a strategy in coming weeks,” the senior official said.
Critics say the Obama administration was caught flat-footed by the explosion of popular rage in the Middle East and North Africa and has seemed content to play catch-up as unrest has spread from one country to another.
Obama aides insist he has been ahead of the curve, citing his June 2009 speech in Cairo in which he reached out to the Muslim world and pledged to support those who yearn for political freedoms. Human rights groups said he did not go far enough.
An administration official said Obama first asked his advisers last summer to study political reform in the Middle East and, in the aftermath of Tunisia’s uprising, he ordered them to formulate a broader strategy for the region’s unrest.
Players include McFaul, a Stanford University professor and Russia expert who has extensively studied the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, and Samantha Power, a longtime Obama aide known for her writings on genocide and human rights.
Also part of the inner circle are National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and Obama’s main wordsmith Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, and three key Middle East hands -- Dennis Ross, Puneet Talwar and Dan Shapiro.
A team is preparing a primer on democratic transitions, using models such as Eastern Europe, Indonesia, the Philippines and South Korea that will help guide the thinking of the administration and of Middle Eastern reformers.
“We’re not saying ‘here’s the blueprint.’ But what we want is to lay down some principles,” the senior official said.
Obama aides made clear they had no intention of reviving former President George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda,” which they said was an ill-conceived effort to dictate democratic change that was tainted by the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
For now, the Obama administration is trying to tailor its approach country by country, ranging from low-key prodding for reform by U.S.-allied Bahrain to demands for the immediate exit of Gaddafi, who has a tortured history with Washington.
In an article in Foreign Policy magazine, Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser to Democratic and Republican administrations and now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, likened the U.S. challenge to “a giant game of whack-a-mole,” where it confronts one problem only to see another one pop up.
Obama has faced mixed reviews for his handling of Libya, with some critics faulting him for not being more outspoken on Gaddafi’s crackdown and waiting until last weekend to demand that he leave.
“America should lead,” Republican Senator John McCain told CNN on Sunday as he criticized the president’s approach to the turmoil in Libya and other Middle Eastern countries.
White House aides said the caution in Obama’s rhetoric last week was driven by concern Americans in Libya were in harm’s way and that the United States had been primed to take a tougher line once they were evacuated.
Behind the scenes, the administration was putting its focus on rallying a coordinated international response on Libya that included sanctions and asset freezes. Washington also has moved warships and planes closer to Libya but has stopped short of threatening military action.
While rhetoric can sometimes be an important tool, McFaul said, it is only one of many levers the United States can use to advance its aims for the region.
“Our goal is motivated by a set of principles about what we are seeking to advance: to reduce the violence, to have respect for universal rights and to push forward a reform process,” McFaul said.
Editing by John O'Callaghan and John Whitesides