By Andrew Quinn
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama is struggling to fashion a coherent Middle East policy that can span the launching of military action in Libya and a hesitant response to repression elsewhere.
It has not been easy to strike a balance between pragmatism and principle, with diverging U.S. national interests at stake in each conflict and an overworked Middle East policy team absorbed with crisis management.
"On a senior level there is a serious challenge on how to navigate all of this," said Brian Katulis, a Middle East expert at the Center for American Progress.
"They are doing the best that they can, but even folks in the White House and the National Security Council only have 24 hours in a day."
Stung by accusations that it has sent mixed messages on Middle East events, the White House has said it is putting together a new, overarching strategy that will set out basic principles of U.S. policy toward the region.
But with U.S. forces now leading United Nations-mandated air strikes in Libya, the prospect seems slim of an "Obama doctrine" emerging soon that can encompass relations with autocratic U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and support for pro-democracy movements around the region.
"I certainly don't see any Obama doctrine," said Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations, a conservative commentator who has urged a stronger U.S. response to the Libya crisis.
"Instead what I see is the president frantically reacting to the press of events and being pulled hither and yon by different factions in his administration."
Obama has expressed U.S. support for human rights and democracy, seeking to ally himself with protesters who in January toppled Tunisia's strongman leader and in February ousted former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, despite the fact that the United States long worked with both men.
Obama was criticized for moving slowly on Mubarak, for decades seen as a pivotal U.S. ally in the region, but ratcheted up pressure and hailed protesters as champions of "the power of human dignity" in the face of repression.
Mubarak's fall sparked fears in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies that Washington would fail to back other long-standing rulers in the region.
When Shi'ite protests in Bahrain escalated, American pleas for restraint and dialogue were ignored and Saudi troops were sent in to shore up the rule of King Hamad.
There was little choice for the United States but to acquiesce given that Bahrain hosts the U.S. Navy's Fifth fleet in a region dominated by fears of the rise of Shi'ite Iran.
On Libya, the United States tacked sharply as events unfolded -- initially resisting calls to intervene as Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi moved to quash a rebellion, before backing air strikes to stop attacks on civilians.
VALUES VS INTERESTS
Egypt and Tunisia are valued as potential new democratic models, Saudi Arabia is seen as a crucial energy supplier and bulwark against Iran while Libya is portrayed as a test of U.S. humanitarian ideals.
Political analysts say the varying U.S. approaches reflect the different U.S. interests in each country involved as well as the rapidly changing facts on the ground.
Tunisia is seen by U.S. officials as of minimal strategic importance, making it easier for Washington to back protesters. Egypt was more important as the first Arab state to make peace with Israel, leaving U.S. officials reluctant to abandon Mubarak even as they saw sentiment turn against him.
Saudi Arabia, the source of 12 percent of the United States crude oil supply, is vital economically and, as a result, Washington is unlikely to do anything that might fuel instability or undermine the ruling Saud family.
The result, analysts say, is a policy that lacks consistency on the surface but reflects U.S. interests.
"The administration is now trying to carry out a policy and figure out the details at the same time. That always multiplies the problems," said James Lindsay, a former National Security Council official in the Clinton White House now at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Obama is committed to partnering with other countries rather than going it alone as did his predecessor George W. Bush, which both broadens and complicates the decision-making process.
"This is an important shift in U.S. foreign policy. But if anyone expects instant success to build up international institutions to deal with worst cases they are going to be deeply disappointed," said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies."
The impact has been clearest on Libya, where Obama has been criticized by some for not moving fast enough against Gaddafi and by others for involving U.S. forces in an open-ended mission in a third Muslim country after Iraq and Afghanistan.
U.S. officials say the effort to build an international coalition is crucial to success, pointing to the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq as a lesson on the dangers of largely unilateral action.
But there is thus far limited Arab participation -- only Qatar has publicly offered to help enforce the no-fly zone -- and analysts say the administration's emphasis on winning Arab cooperation on Libya may force it into uneasy compromises with countries such as Saudi Arabia that are resisting change at home.
"There have always been tensions between ideals and interests in U.S. policy and right now interests seem to be winning out," said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution's Doha Center.
"The U.S. has an opportunity to fundamentally realign its policy in the Arab world. But it is not easy and it would require bold creative leadership, and that is not something we've a seen a lot of from the Obama administration so far."
(additional reporting by Caren Bohan; editing by Sean Maguire)