By MARK LANDLER
New York Times
WASHINGTON — President Obama ordered his advisers last August to produce a secret report on unrest in the Arab world, which concluded that without sweeping political changes, countries from Bahrain to Yemen were ripe for popular revolt, administration officials said Wednesday.
Mr. Obama’s order, known as a Presidential Study Directive, identified likely flashpoints, most notably Egypt, and solicited proposals for how the administration could push for political change in countries with autocratic rulers who are also valuable allies of the United States, these officials said.
The 18-page classified report, they said, grapples with a problem that has bedeviled the White House’s approach toward Egypt and other countries in recent days: how to balance American strategic interests and the desire to avert broader instability against the democratic demands of the protesters.
Administration officials did not say how the report related to intelligence analysis of the Middle East, which the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Leon E. Panetta, acknowledged in testimony before Congress, needed to better identify “triggers” for uprisings in countries like Egypt.
Officials said Mr. Obama’s support for the crowds in Tahrir Square in Cairo, even if it followed some mixed signals by his administration, reflected his belief that there was a greater risk in not pushing for changes because Arab leaders would have to resort to ever more brutal methods to keep the lid on dissent.
“There’s no question Egypt was very much on the mind of the president,” said a senior official who helped draft the report and who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss its findings. “You had all the unknowns created by Egypt’s succession picture — and Egypt is the anchor of the region.”
At the time, officials said, President Hosni Mubarak appeared to be either digging in or grooming his son, Gamal, to succeed him. Parliamentary elections scheduled for November were widely expected to be a sham. Egyptian police were jailing bloggers, and Mohamed ElBaradei, the former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, had returned home to lead a nascent opposition movement.
In Yemen, too, officials said Mr. Obama worried that the administration’s intense focus on counterterrorism operations against Al Qaeda was ignoring a budding political crisis, as angry young people rebelled against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, an autocratic leader of the same vintage as Mr. Mubarak.
“Whether it was Yemen or other countries in the region, you saw a set of trends” — a big youth population, threadbare education systems, stagnant economies and new social network technologies like Facebook and Twitter — that was a “real prescription for trouble,” another official said.
The White House held weekly meetings with experts from the State Department, the C.I.A. and other agencies. The process was led by Dennis B. Ross, the president’s senior adviser on the Middle East; Samantha Power, a senior director at the National Security Council who handles human rights issues; and Gayle Smith, a senior director responsible for global development.
The administration kept the project secret, officials said, because it worried that if word leaked out, Arab allies would pressure the White House, something that happened in the days after protests convulsed Cairo.
Indeed, except for Egypt, the officials refused to discuss countries in detail. The report singles out four for close scrutiny, which an official said ran the gamut: one that is trying to move toward change, another that has resisted any change and two with deep strategic ties to the United States as well as religious tensions. Those characteristics would suggest Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen.
By issuing a directive, Mr. Obama was also pulling the topic of political change out of regular meetings on diplomatic, commercial or military relations with Arab states. In those meetings, one official said, the strategic interests loom so large that it is almost impossible to discuss reform efforts.
The study has helped shape other messages, like a speech Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gave in Qatar in January, in which she criticized Arab leaders for resisting change.
“We really pushed the question of who was taking the lead in reform,” said an official. “Would pushing reform harm relations with the Egyptian military? Doesn’t the military have an interest in reform?”
Mr. Obama also pressed his advisers to study popular uprisings in Latin America, Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia to determine which ones worked and which did not. He is drawn to Indonesia, where he spent several years as a child, which ousted its longtime leader, Suharto, in 1998.
While the report is guiding the administration’s response to events in the Arab world, it has not yet been formally submitted — and given the pace of events in the region, an official said, it is still a work in progress.