WASHINGTON—When President Barack Obama lays out his vision for the Middle East in a speech Thursday, he will also be tacitly drawing attention to another upheaval: Tumult in the Arab world has accelerated a shift in the standing of Washington’s foreign-policy power players.
The Obama White House has moved to exert greater civilian control over the military, challenging the views of the top brass in some areas, officials say. At the same time, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s State Department, together with a more assertive White House National Security Council, has taken a lead in crafting America’s response to the greatest geopolitical challenge since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Underscoring this shift is Mr. Obama’s choice of venue to deliver the address: the State Department. The address Thursday morning—which is late afternoon, Cairo time—will be the president’s first major policy address from the home base of U.S. foreign diplomacy.
The military’s standing in the White House reflects lingering tensions with some of Mr. Obama’s civilian advisers that grew out of a 2009 debate over escalating the war in Afghanistan, according to senior U.S. officials and foreign diplomats.
When popular revolutions began sweeping the Arab world, many in the military, which has been generally cautious about intervention, were reluctant to see longstanding Arab allies, such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, pushed out.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and many military leaders were also particularly cautious about military action in Libya. Some have taken to calling the Libya campaign the “estrogen war” in an implicit critique of Mrs. Clinton and other female administration officials who backed it.
Mrs. Clinton was also an early voice of caution when it came to Egypt. But she moved more quickly to break with autocrats in Yemen and Libya and push for democratic change in Bahrain, while managing to maintain relationships with unhappy Arab allies, U.S. officials say.
Officials in the State Department and the White House, especially those who backed the use of force in Libya, dismiss the estrogen comment as the sexist grousing of military men who lost the argument.
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Egypt State Department and Pentagon joined in urging caution about pushing for President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. On peace with Israel, counterterrorism and hostility to Iran, he was a vital U.S. ally. Having invested decades in building ties to the Egyptian army, Pentagon veterans shared Mrs. Clinton’s view.
Bahrain The popular uprising in the tiny Persian Gulf sheikdom concerned U.S. military officials, who were fearful of losing their base for the Pentagon’s Fifth Fleet, which polices the Gulf, and worried about what might happen if the regime fell. Mrs. Clinton pushed Bahrain to make political changes, chilling relations with Arab states.
Yemen Mrs. Clinton angered President Ali Abdullah Saleh in January by demanding a meeting with activists. In March, Defense Secretary Gates said the Yemeni leader’s fate was ‘too soon to call,’ and praised his government as an ally against al Qaeda. The White House is now pushing Mr. Saleh to resign sooner rather than later.
Libya Mr. Gates, urged caution when considering military intervention. Pentagon officials worried about the department being overstretched. ‘This is not a question of whether we or our allies can do this. We can,’ Mr. Gates said. ‘The question is whether this is a wise thing to do.’ The White House chose to proceed.
"Secretary Clinton has become one of the most forceful officials working on the world stage," says Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), a long-serving member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Her influence with the president has been enhanced by her stature."
The next test is Syria, where officials across the administration worry the fall of President Bashar al-Assad could unleash sectarian violence. Some aides to Mrs. Clinton, however, see the unrest as an unrivaled opportunity to diminish the power of Syria’s ally, Iran, and rewrite the politics of the region.
Mr. Obama is expected to argue Thursday that the death of Osama bin Laden, paired with the popular uprisings, signals the possibility of a new, open and democratic opportunity for a region that is largely the province of entrenched autocrats.
Mr. Obama will also announce an economic aid plan focused on Egypt and Tunisia, according to senior administration officials, including $1 billion in debt relief and $1 billion in loan guarantees for Egypt, the creation of an Egyptian-American enterprise fund to help promote private investment, and a framework for strengthening trade.
Mr. Obama will speak from the State Department’s Benjamin Franklin Room. White House officials say the setting embodies the policy shift the president is trying to achieve.
Even as the U.S. pursues “principally military and intelligence efforts” to fight terrorism and build toward an exit from Afghanistan, “the longer future in the Middle East we believe will have a huge diplomatic component to it,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
That puts the military in a bind. Many in the Pentagon ascribe to what Washington policy wonks call the “realist” theory of foreign policy, which believes in narrowly defined international goals, not reshaping the world. “We take countries as they are, not as we might wish they could be,” said a senior military officer working on the Middle East.
Mrs. Clinton is no idealist, but she has sought to build the State Department into a powerful base, and in recent months has made common cause with a younger group of more idealistic White House officials, according to U.S. officials. Senior U.S. officials say the eruption of political revolts across the Middle East at the beginning of 2011 blindsided the administration.
Mrs. Clinton was forced to fashion the administration’s first response to the crisis literally on the fly as she toured Persian Gulf states. In a speech in Qatar, she stunned Arab leaders by saying they risked “sinking into the sand” if they didn’t change course.
During the first act of the Arab Spring, however, the State Department and Pentagon joined in pressing caution, especially with Egypt, a vital U.S. ally.
For Mrs. Clinton, a turning point came with the uprising in Bahrain, home to the Pentagon’s Fifth Fleet, which polices the oil-rich Gulf. The Pentagon was fearful of losing its basing rights and worried about what might happen if the regime fell.
Mrs. Clinton pushed Bahrain for political change. That chilled relations to the point that neither Bahrain nor Saudi Arabia directly notified the White House in March before deploying thousands of Saudi and Emirati troops to shore up its ruling family, according to the U.S.
The State Department believed it was within hours of a breakthrough that could have pushed Bahrain closer to a deal with the political opposition. Mrs. Clinton was livid.
It was the decision to attack Libya that laid bare the new dynamic most starkly. Pentagon officials worried out loud that France and Britain were playing down the difficulty of removing Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. They were outspoken about the limited effectiveness of a no-fly zone and skeptical about the impact of financial sanctions.
The White House and State Department, however, were under pressure from European and Arab allies. The U.S. put forth to allied countries and Arab states preconditions to military action that included a United Nations resolution, Arab participation and drawing up a plan that went beyond a no-fly zone.
Some officials worried Col. Gadhafi’s troops would slaughter rebel forces, an echo of the violence in Rwanda and Srebrenica that occurred on President Bill Clinton’s watch. “Senior officials all agreed to the pillars of our Libya policy,” said a senior aide to Mrs. Clinton. “If all of these became available to us, could we really stand aside?” —Laura Meckler,
Nathan Hodge and Carol E. Lee
contributed to this article.