WASHINGTON — Sens. John McCain and Joseph Lieberman met in Egypt and Tunisia recently with the new, post-revolution prime ministers of both countries. Almost as soon as they'd returned to Washington, both leaders were out of office.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had a similar mind-bending experience during a one-week trip through the Persian Gulf and Horn of Africa. In seven days between takeoff and touchdown at Andrews Air Force Base, protests in Bahrain went from violent to peaceful; in Libya, from scattered to a near-civil war; and in Yemen, from disorganized to a serious threat to the U.S.-backed government there.
"Events are moving literally at the speed of Twitter," Mullen told reporters at the Pentagon.
Seven weeks after protests in the small North African country of Tunisia toppled the longtime leader there and sparked what some are calling a new "Arab Awakening," President Barack Obama, his top aides, and U.S. lawmakers are confronting a historic tsunami of change in the Middle East that shows no signs of receding.
How Obama handles the ferment from Algeria in the west to Iran in the east will affect U.S. national security and his own legacy in ways he barely could have imagined when he announced his presidential candidacy four years ago.
With Libya teetering on the edge of civil war; Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a key counterterrorism ally, clinging to office; and democratic transitions in Egypt and Tunisia by no means assured, it's too soon for a full report card on Obama's first sustained international crisis.
Former U.S. officials give the White House high marks so far for day-to-day crisis management. Obama helped shoehorn from power aging Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a U.S. partner for decades, and quietly evacuated American diplomats and other citizens from Libya before marshalling tough sanctions and other measures against Moammar Gadhafi's regime.
"Despite the criticism they've gotten, they've acted deftly in managing the crisis in both Tunisia and Egypt, especially," after some initial stumbles, said Edward Djerejian, an assistant secretary of state for the Near East under presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
But Obama has been slow and cautious in articulating an over-arching U.S. strategy to match the moment, one that explains how the U.S. will support political change in the Middle East and reassures nervous U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia, according to many analysts and lawmakers.
"We've got to develop an overall agenda, policy, doctrine, whatever you want to call it," said McCain, who lost the presidential election to Obama in 2008, but has modestly praised his actions in the crisis.
"We're understandably running around putting out fires," McCain said during an appearance at the center-left Brookings Institution in Washington.
The criticism echoes that heard during history-making events 20-plus years ago, when many voices chided the elder president Bush's "prudent" response to the collapse of communism in Europe that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall and culminated with the disappearance of the Soviet Union itself.
Aides say Obama is reluctant to thrust the U.S. into the center of largely peaceful peoples' revolts that are authentically Arab and, for the first time in recent memory, don't involve the burning of U.S. and Israeli flags or other displays of anti-Americanism.
"The president understands that it is absolutely critical that the United States not try to, or be seen as trying to, take ownership" of the pro-democracy movements, said Daniel Shapiro, the senior director for the Near East on the White House's National Security Council.
"A, it would fail and B, it would undermine everything we hope would be achieved," Shapiro said, calling the approach one of "strategic restraint."
But another senior administration official, who wasn't authorized to speak for the record, acknowledged that Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will soon have to clarify the U.S. role and views.
"As time goes on, it is important to provide people with a broad strategic vision," the official said. "What does (the Middle East tumult) mean, and how should we really be leading?"
Obama came to office intent on repairing U.S. relations with the Muslim world, but critical of President George W. Bush's aggressive "freedom agenda" in the region, which even many dissidents in the Arab world and Iran say backfired by allowing dictatorial regimes to paint their internal political opponents as American agents.
The budget Obama submitted in 2010 cut some forms of pro-democracy assistance in Egypt and acquiesced to the Mubarak government's demand that U.S. Agency for International Development funding go only to nongovernment organizations approved by Cairo.
But even before the Tunisian revolt began, the administration was giving a higher priority to Middle East reform.
In a Jan. 13 speech in Doha, Qatar, Clinton warned that "the region's foundations are sinking into the sand," due to Arab nations' large youth populations, widespread unemployment, corruption and political stagnation. The next day, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled his country after a month of protests and riots.
Aides say Obama last summer quietly ordered a report on potential unrest in the Arab world, and which nations were at risk. The White House also held meetings on an anticipated transition in Egypt if Mubarak, 82, died or was incapacitated.
When unrest began in Tunisia, where the U.S. ambassador had frequently warned over the years in cables made public by WikiLeaks that Ben Ali and his family were wildly unpopular, U.S. officials quickly saw the import.
"There was a pretty early recognition of what was happening, the fact that it was irreversible . . . that no country or society was going to be immune to it," said the senior official who requested anonymity.
Now the Obama team is being tested with dramatic developments almost by the hour, and with huge stakes. Will Libya, as Clinton asked recently, turn into a democracy, or a North African Somalia, a haven for terrorists? Will reform in Egypt provide a model for smaller Arab nations, or go off track?
National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon briefs Obama multiple times each day on the crisis, and deputy Denis McDonough leads meetings virtually daily of the inter-agency Deputies Committee.
Obama, Shapiro said, has ordered officials and diplomats to open channels of communications wherever they can find them, not just with counterparts in Arab governments, but with members of civil society and opposition groups.
He called it "a very Obama approach" drawn from the president's days as a community organizer in Chicago. "You go out and talk to everybody," he said, and it has helped U.S. officials get a richer understanding of what is happening in Egypt and elsewhere.
There have been some tensions, particularly over the decision to break with Mubarak, between those at the White House and State Department who favor strongly supporting pro-democracy movements and those who favor stability, current and former U.S. officials say.
There's also the threat of data overload. "You have a serious bandwith problem," said one Middle East expert who consults with the White House and who requested anonymity to not jeopardize those ties. "How do you even process the information?"
If the collapse of European communism beginning in 1989 is even a rough guide, the Middle East revolutions and their aftermath will go on for years, requiring diplomatic attention long after the headlines have faded.
The Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989, but the Soviet Union lived on until the end of 1991. East and West Germany reunified in 1990, but it took more than a decade for differences between the two sides to be smoothed over. And the end of the Cold War helped spark costly conflicts in the Balkans, from 1992-1999, and in places such as Georgia on Russia's southern border.
What challenges lie ahead in the Middle East can only be imagined. It will take years, at best, for Egypt to become a functioning democracy. Gadhafi's personality has so dominated Libya for 40 years that if he goes, new institutions will have to be built from the ground up. Bahrain, with its Shiite Muslim majority dominated by a Sunni minority, could become the center of a proxy war between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.
The U.S. spent billions of dollars helping shepherd eastern Europe toward democracy and free-market economies, and even gave aid to a destitute Russia, once its mortal enemy.
But now, the U.S. government doesn't have the deep pockets it once did, and the White House hasn't announced large new democracy assistance programs for the Middle East.
That will be "harder to sustain in an era when budgets are tight," the senior official said.
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY