WASHINGTON — Each Saturday morning in July and August, Susan E. Rice, President Obama’s new national security adviser, gathered half a dozen aides in her corner office in the White House to plot America’s future in the Middle East. The policy review, a kind of midcourse correction, has set the United States on a new heading in the world’s most turbulent region.
At the United Nations last month, Obama laid out the priorities he has adopted as a result of the review. The United States, he declared, would focus on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, brokering peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and mitigating the strife in Syria. Everything else would take a back seat.
That includes Egypt, which was once a central pillar of US foreign policy. Obama, who hailed the crowds on the streets of Cairo in 2011 and pledged to champion the cries for change in the region, made clear that there were limits to what the United States would do to nurture democracy, whether there, or in Bahrain, Libya, Tunisia, or Yemen.
The president’s goal, said Rice, who discussed the review for the first time in an interview last week, is to avoid having events in the Middle East swallow his foreign policy agenda, as it had those of presidents before him.
“We can’t just be consumed 24/7 by one region, important as it is,” she said, adding, “He thought it was a good time to step back and reassess, in a very critical and kind of no-holds-barred way, how we conceive the region.”
Not only does the new approach have little in common with the “freedom agenda” of George W. Bush, but it is also a scaling back of the more expansive American role that Obama articulated two years ago, before the Arab Spring mutated into sectarian violence and brutal repression.
The blueprint drawn up on those summer weekends at the White House is a model of pragmatism — eschewing the use of force, except to respond to acts of aggression against the United States or its allies, disruption of oil supplies, terrorist networks, or weapons of mass destruction. Tellingly, it does not designate the spread of democracy promotion as a core interest.
The review was a way for Rice, who began the job in July, to put her stamp on the administration’s priorities. The summer’s debate was often vigorous, officials said, and its conclusions will play out over the rest of Obama’s presidency.
Rice’s team asked the most basic questions: What are America’s core interests in the Middle East? How has the upheaval in the Arab world changed America’s position? What can Obama realistically hope to achieve?
The answer was a more modest approach — one that prizes diplomacy and puts limits on engagement.
For Rice, 48, who previously served as ambassador to the United Nations, it is an uncharacteristic imprint. She is known as a fierce defender of human rights, advocating military intervention, when necessary. She was among those who persuaded Obama to back a NATO air campaign in Libya to avert a slaughter of the rebels by Moammar Khadafy.