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.
That includes Egypt, which was once a central pillar of American foreign policy. Mr. Obama, who hailed the crowds on the streets of Cairo in 2011 and pledged to heed the cries for change across 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 Ms. 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 Mr. Obama himself articulated two years ago, before the Arab Spring mutated into sectarian violence, extremism 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 as a core interest.
For Ms. Rice, whose day job since she started July 1 has been a cascade of crises from Syria to the furor over the National Security Agency’s surveillance activities, the review was also a way to put her stamp on the administration’s priorities.
The debate was often vigorous, officials said, and its conclusions will play out over the rest of Mr. Obama’s presidency.
Scrawling ideas on a whiteboard and papering the walls of her office with notes, Ms. 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 Mr. Obama realistically hope to achieve? What lies outside his reach?
The answer was a more modest approach — one that prizes diplomacy, puts limits on engagement and raises doubts about whether Mr. Obama would ever again use military force in a region convulsed by conflict.
For Ms. Rice, 48, who previously served as ambassador to the United Nations, it is an uncharacteristic imprint. A self-confident foreign policy thinker and expert on Africa, she is known as a fierce defender of human rights, advocating military intervention, when necessary. She was among those who persuaded Mr. Obama to back a NATO air campaign in Libya to avert a slaughter of the rebels by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
But Mr. Obama drove the process, officials said, asking for formal briefings in the Situation Room and shorter updates during his daily intelligence briefing in the Oval Office. He gave his advisers a tight deadline of the United Nations’ speech last month and pushed them to develop certain themes, drawing from his own journey since the hopeful early days of the Arab Spring.
In May 2011, he said the United States would support democracy, human rights and free markets with all the “diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal.” But at the United Nations last month, he said, “we can rarely achieve these objectives through unilateral American action — particularly with military action.”
Critics say the retooled policy will not shield the United States from the hazards of the Middle East. By holding back, they say, the United States risks being buffeted by crisis after crisis, as the president’s fraught history with Syria illustrates.
“You can have your agenda, but you can’t control what happens,” saidTamara Cofman Wittes, the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “The argument that we can’t make a decisive difference, so we’re not going to try, is wrongheaded.”
Other analysts said that the administration was right to focus on old-fashioned diplomacy with Iran and in the Middle East peace process, but that it had slighted the role of Egypt, which, despite its problems, remains a crucial American ally and a bellwether for the region.
“Egypt is still the test case of whether there can be a peaceful political transition in the Arab world,” said Richard N. Haass, who served in the State Department during the Bush administration and is now president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “But here, the administration is largely silent and seems uncertain as to what to do.”
The White House did not declare the Egyptian military’s ouster of President Mohamed Morsi last July a coup, which would have required cutting off all aid to the government. Instead, it signaled its displeasure by temporarily holding up the delivery of some big-ticket military equipment, delegating the announcement to the State Department.
Ms. Rice and other officials denied that Egypt had been sidelined, arguing that the policy was calculated to preserve American influence in Cairo. They also said the United States would continue to promote democracy, even if there were limits on what it could do, not to mention constraints on what the president could ask of a war-weary American public. “It would have been easy to write the president’s speech in a way that would have protected us from criticism,” said Philip H. Gordon, the coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa on the National Security Council. “We were trying to be honest and realistic.”
Mr. Gordon took part in the Saturday sessions, along with two of Ms. Rice’s deputies, Antony J. Blinken and Benjamin J. Rhodes; the national security adviser to the vice president, Jake Sullivan; the president’s counterterrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco; a senior economic official, Caroline Atkinson; and a handful of others.
It was a tight group that included no one outside the White House, a stark contrast to Mr. Obama’s Afghanistan review in 2009, which involved dozens of officials from the Pentagon, the State Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency. Ms. Rice said she briefed Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel over weekly lunches.
Some priorities were clear. The election of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran presents the West with perhaps its last good chance to curb its nuclear program. Mr. Rouhani has a mandate to ease sanctions on Iran and has signaled an eagerness to negotiate.
But other goals appear to have been dictated as much as by personnel as by policy. After vigorous debate, the group decided to make the Middle East peace process a top priority — even after failing to broker an agreement during the administration’s first term — in part because Mr. Kerry had already thrown himself into the role of peacemaker.
More than anything, the policy review was driven by Mr. Obama’s desire to turn his gaze elsewhere, notably Asia. Already, the government shutdown forced the president to cancel a trip to Southeast Asia — a decision that particularly irked Ms. Rice, who was planning to accompany Mr. Obama and plunge into a part of the world with which she did not have much experience.
“There’s a whole world out there,” Ms. Rice said, “and we’ve got interests and opportunities in that whole world.”