WH shift on Middle East: Not regime change but "regime alteration"

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…

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.