These were surprising turns. But even the administration’s signature project in the region — Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations — became even more intractable this week, with the publication of confidential documents detailing Palestinian concessions offered in talks with Israel. The disclosure makes it less likely that the Palestinians will agree to any further concessions.
In interviews in recent days, officials acknowledged that the United States had limited influence over many actors in the region, and that the upheaval in Egypt, in particular, could scramble its foreign-policy agenda.
So it is proceeding gingerly, balancing the democratic aspirations of young Arabs with cold-eyed strategic and commercial interests. That sometimes involves supporting autocratic and unpopular governments — which has turned many of those young people against the United States.
President Obama called Mr. Mubarak last week, after the uprising in Tunisia, to talk about joint projects like the Middle East peace process, even as he emphasized the need to meet the democratic aspirations of the Tunisian protesters.
Mr. Obama repeated this point during his State of the Union address on Tuesday, saying, “Tonight, let us be clear: the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people,” a reference, a White House official said, to the protesters in Egypt.
The White House warned Hezbollah against coercion and intimidation, and officials said the United States might go as far as pulling hundreds of millions of dollars of aid from Lebanon. The administration sent a senior diplomat, Jeffrey D. Feltman, to Tunisia to express support for pro-democracy forces as they prepared for elections after the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
While there are important differences between North Africa and Lebanon, the two situations pose similar challenges.
Some analysts argue that the United States should seize on Tunisia to advance democracy across the Middle East — reprising the “freedom agenda” of the Bush administration and providing Mr. Obama a rare opportunity to deliver on pledges to build bridges to the Muslim world.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton came closest to doing that in Qatar two weeks ago, when she bluntly criticized Arab leaders for their autocratic ways, a mere 24 hours before Mr. Ben Ali was driven from office. But Mrs. Clinton’s speech does not augur a return to the Bush approach, officials said.
For one thing, clamoring for democracy did not work so well for President George W. Bush, administration officials said. More important, a wave of upheaval could uproot valuable allies. An uprising in Tunisia, a peripheral player in the region, is not the same as one in Egypt, a linchpin. The Egyptian government is a crucial ally to Washington, but the population is very suspicious of American motives, and the potential for Islamic extremism lurks. “These countries are going to go at a different pace,” said Daniel B. Shapiro, a senior Middle East adviser on the National Security Council. “One couldn’t, or shouldn’t try, to come up with a cookie-cutter ideal of how to approach it.”
The administration has tried to balance its ties to Mr. Mubarak with expressions of concern about rigged elections and jailed dissidents in his country. But it may find it harder to avoid singling him out if the crowds keep building in Cairo, as separate statements of concern about the protests in Egypt, released by the White House and State Department late Tuesday, suggested.