Obama Seeks a Course of Pragmatism in the Middle Easthttp://www.nytimes.com/2011/
WASHINGTON — In the Middle East crisis, as on other issues, there are two Barack Obamas: the transformative historical figure and the pragmatic American president. Three months after a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself aflame and ignited a political firestorm across the Arab world, the president is trumping the trailblazer.
With the spread of antigovernment protests from North Africa to the strategic, oil-rich Persian Gulf, President Obama has adopted a policy of restraint. He has concluded that his administration must shape its response country by country, aides say, recognizing a stark reality that American national security interests weigh as heavily as idealistic impulses. That explains why Mr. Obama has dialed down the vocal support he gave demonstrators in Cairo to a more modulated call for peaceful protest and respect for universal rights elsewhere.
This emphasis on pragmatism over idealism has left Mr. Obama vulnerable to criticism that he is losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab street protesters. Some say he is failing to bind the United States to the historic change under way in the Middle East the way that Ronald Reagan forever cemented himself in history books to the end of the cold war with his famous call to tear down the Berlin Wall.
“It’s tempting, and it would be easy, to go out day after day with cathartic statements that make us feel good,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, who wrote Mr. Obama’s soaring speech in Cairo to the Islamic world in 2009. “But ultimately, what’s most important is achieving outcomes that are consistent with our values, because if we don’t, those statements will be long forgotten.”
On Thursday, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, deflected calls for more aggressive action in Libya, telling reporters what American officials have been saying privately for days: despite pleas from Libyan rebels for military assistance, the United States will not, at least for now, put its pilots in harm’s way by enforcing a no-flight zone over the country.
Not only is intervention risky, officials said, but they also fear that in some cases, it could be counterproductive, provoking a backlash against the United States for meddling in what is a homegrown political movement.
A senior administration official acknowledged the irony of Mr. Obama’s dilemma; he is, after all, the first black president, whose election was hailed on the Arab street, where many protesters identify their own struggles with the civil rights movement.
“There is a desire for Obama — not the American president, but Obama — to speak to their aspirations,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. But, he added, “his first job is to be the American president.”
So Mr. Obama has thrown his weight behind attempts by the royal family of Bahrain, the home of the Navy’s Fifth Fleet, to survive, although protesters say their demands have not been met. He has said little about political grievances in Saudi Arabia, a major oil supplier, where there were reports on Thursday of a violent dispersal of Shiite protesters. And he has limited White House critiques of Yemen, where the government is helping the United States root out a terrorist threat, even after that government opened fire on demonstrators.
The more cautious approach contrasts sharply with Mr. Obama’s response in North Africa, where he abandoned a 30-year alliance with Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and has demanded the resignation of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya. But Mr. Obama is balancing his idealistic instincts against his reluctance to use military action in Libya, where the United States does not have a vital strategic interest. Mr. Donilon noted that the administration needed to keep its focus on the broader region, where allies like Egypt loom large.
The time is coming, administration officials said, for Mr. Obama to make another major speech taking stock of the upheaval. But its central message is not yet set, and there is likely to be lively debate about questions like whether the president should admit American complicity in propping up undemocratic governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
“I don’t honestly think it would change much,” said a second senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “It isn’t going to change the perception of the United States one way or the other. What will continue to affect the perception of the United States is what we do now.”
The White House will send Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Egypt and Tunisia next week, where officials said she would congratulate the protesters for sweeping out their leaders peacefully and offer aid to revive the nations’ economies. She had planned to stop in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, but canceled, officials said, because King Abdullah is too ill to meet her.
This underscores one of the difficulties the United States faces in dealing with Saudi Arabia, a crucial ally that is run by an aging, infirm ruling family that has refused to open the political system. Instead, the king tried to mollify his people by doling out $36 billion worth of pay raises, unemployment checks and housing subsidies.
Bahrain poses a different problem. There, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has pledged to enter a dialogue with the protestors, after having unleashed its security forces on them. Officials said Mr. Obama persuaded King Hamad to pull back his forces, which they said won the United States goodwill from the mostly Shiite demonstrators. But the talks have failed to get off the ground, and now some Shiites feel the Americans have sided against them.
“There is a sense among many Bahraini reformers that the U.S. is a bit too eager to praise progress toward dialogue and reform that has not yet happened, and that the premature praise is easing pressure on the government,” said Tom Malinowski, the head of the Washington office of Human Rights Watch.
“Striking a very balanced, and in many ways, neutral approach is recognized by many people in the region as not being with them, or on their side,” said J. Scott Mastic, the head of Middle East and North Africa for the International Republican Institute. “It’s very important that we be seen as supporting the demands of the people in the region.”
How Mr. Obama manages to do that while also balancing American interests is a question that officials acknowledge will plague this historic president for months to come. Mr. Obama has told people that it would be so much easier to be the president of China. As one official put it, “No one is scrutinizing Hu Jintao’s words in Tahrir Square.”
Elisabeth Bumiller and Stephen Castle contributed reporting from Brussels, Steven Erlanger and Alan Cowell from Paris and Judy Dempsey from Berlin.