(WSJ).After weeks of internal debate on how to respond to uprisings in the Arab world, the Obama administration is settling on a Middle East strategy: help keep longtime allies who are willing to reform in power, even if that means the full democratic demands of their newly emboldened citizens might have to wait.
Instead of pushing for immediate regime change—as it did to varying degrees in Egypt and now Libya—the U.S. is urging protesters from Bahrain to Morocco to work with existing rulers toward what some officials and diplomats are now calling "regime alteration."
The approach has emerged amid furious lobbying of the administration by Arab governments, who were alarmed that President Barack Obama had abandoned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and worried that, if the U.S. did the same to the beleaguered king of Bahrain, a chain of revolts could sweep them from power, too, and further upend the region's stability.
The strategy also comes in the face of domestic U.S. criticism that the administration sent mixed messages at first in Egypt, tentatively backing Mr. Mubarak before deciding to throw its full support behind the protesters demanding his ouster. Likewise in Bahrain, the U.S. decision to throw a lifeline to the ruling family came after sharp criticism of its handling of protests there. On Friday, the kingdom's opposition mounted one of its largest rallies, underlining the challenge the administration faces selling a strategy of more gradual change to the population.
Administration officials say they have been consistent throughout, urging rulers to avoid violence and make democratic reforms that address the demands of their populations. Still, a senior administration official acknowledged the past month has been a learning process for policy makers. "What we have said throughout this is that there is a need for political, economic and social reform, but the particular approach will be country by country," the official said.
A pivotal moment came in late February, in the tense hours after Mr. Obama publicly berated King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa for cracking down violently on antigovernment demonstrators in Bahrain's capital. Envoys for the king and his Arab allies shuttled from the Pentagon to the State Department and the White House with a carefully coordinated message.
If the Obama administration did not reverse course and stand squarely behind the monarchy, they warned, Bahrain's government could fall, costing America a critical ally and potentially moving the country toward Iran's orbit. Adding to the sense of urgency was a scenario being watched by U.S. intelligence agencies: the possibility that Saudi Arabia might invade its tiny neighbor to silence the Shiite-led protesters, threatening decades-old partnerships and creating vast political and economic upheaval.
Israel was also making its voice heard. As Mr. Mubarak's grip on power slipped away in Egypt, Israeli officials lobbied Washington to move cautiously and reassure Mideast allies that they were not being abandoned. Israeli leaders have made clear that they fear extremist forces could try to exploit new-found freedoms and undercut Israel's security, diplomats said.
Those concerns were shared by Israel and several key Arab allies, who were "furious" at the Obama administration for ignoring their appeals to allow Mr. Mubarak a graceful exit, a senior European military official said. But administration officials argued that with hundreds of thousands of protesters on the streets, they had little choice but to turn on Mr. Mubarak sooner rather than later. Indeed, the administration has been criticized by human-rights groups for not standing more squarely with democracy advocates from the start.
The emerging approach could help slow the pace of upheaval to avoid further violence, the administration's top priority, and help preserve important strategic alliances. At the same time, the approach carries risk. Autocratic governments might not deliver on their reform promises, making Washington look like it was doing their bidding at the public's expense. Officials said the administration's response in Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere could change if people take to the streets en masse, rejecting offers made at the negotiating table, or if the U.S.-backed governments crack down violently.