By Steve Holland and Tabassum Zakaria
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When President Barack Obama sat down with his top national security aides this week to determine how to react to a military takeover in Egypt, he had a tough choice to make.
He could denounce what had taken place as a coup launched against a legitimately elected president in Cairo and suspend U.S. military aid. Or he could embrace the move as a reaction to popular discontent with the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled government.
That he chose a middle ground, urging a swift return to civilian government and ordering a U.S. review of aid, reflected fear among his advisers that to publicly take sides could help to fuel violence by allowing militants to cite American interference, and that a balanced reaction was needed to maintain diplomatic flexibility.
But it also said a lot about Obama's approach to the Arab Spring: Tread carefully without carrying a big stick.
Obama's play-it-safe style of diplomacy, a reaction to a war in Iraq that he feels should never have been fought, has allowed him to prevent putting further American troops in danger. It has also left him open to criticism that he has let festering disputes in the region languish, gotten involved too late to shape events and in the process ceded Washington's traditional Middle East clout.
And not being seen to condemn a military overthrow of a democratically elected government could also undermine U.S. officials when they preach about the importance of human rights and democratic reforms elsewhere.
The revelations by former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden about allegedly extensive secret surveillance by the United States of the citizens and governments of foreign countries, both allies and those not so close, has already hurt the U.S. image abroad in recent weeks.
Obama's national security aides on Thursday pressed Egyptian officials to move quickly to a democratic government after the military takeover that ousted President Mohamed Mursi, the White House said on Thursday.
"Members of the president's national security team have been in touch with Egyptian officials and our regional partners to convey the importance of a quick and responsible return of full authority to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible," a White House statement said.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, the United States participated - with reservations - in the coalition effort that led to Muammar Gaddafi's ouster in Libya. But Obama has taken a cautious approach to Syria's civil war, where more than 100,000 people have died and hundreds of thousands have fled as refugees.
He has let France, Britain, Turkey and U.S. Arab allies take the lead and reluctantly agreed last month to send light arms to Syrian rebels.
"It is very easy to slip-slide your way into deeper and deeper commitments," the president told PBS anchor Charlie Rose in justifying his cautious approach to Syria.
"President Obama has demonstrated this persistent detachment as it relates to the unraveling in the Middle East. And I keep thinking there are these key inflection points over the last couple of years that would make it impossible for him to be so detached, but I've been proven wrong every time," said Dan Senor, who was Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's top foreign policy campaign adviser last year.
Only the longest-running drama in the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is getting maximum attention by U.S. diplomats, with Secretary of State John Kerry in the midst of shuttle diplomacy there and hopeful the two sides will get into direct talks at long last.
Publicly at least, Obama has yet to get personally involved in Kerry's effort.
While U.S. officials reject any suggestion they have not paid enough attention to the Middle East, there is no doubt that the Obama administration has been in the midst of a pivot toward the Asia-Pacific region and preoccupied with events at home, from overhauling U.S. immigration laws to expanding healthcare.
And White House officials, no doubt reflecting their boss' stance, frequently speak of the limits of U.S. ability to shape home-grown Arab revolutions that have swept North Africa, Syria and Yemen.
Mursi's overthrow in Egypt offers what amounts to a second chance for Obama, whose withdrawal of U.S. backing helped ease long-time President Hosni Mubarak from power in 2011 in the face of massive street protests. Washington then prodded Egyptian parties to embrace democracy.
Obama could, for example, increase U.S. non-military assistance - now only about $250 million of the total $1.5 billion Cairo gets annually - and send envoys to help advise on a transition back to civilian rule.
But to what extent Egyptians will listen to the American side remains an open question.
"In Egypt right now it's hard for the United States to be very hands-on because Egyptians universally feel the stakes are remarkably high, so the willingness to listen to external voices, the ability to rise over the storm of Egyptian politics is very hard," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
American officials had been aware that Egypt was on the brink of trouble based on the growing numbers showing up to protest Mursi's government. Washington had grown frustrated that the Egyptian leader seemed unable to make critical political and economic decisions, even when it involved the arguably lenient conditions tied to an aid program from the International Monetary Fund.
There had been some consideration of whether U.S. officials should call on the Muslim Brotherhood to have a meeting to figure out a path forward for Egypt's government and get some stronger people around Mursi to help him.
All that fell apart when the crowds surged and the military moved in.
The Obama administration might have misjudged the public mood when the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, said recently that street demonstrations were not the way to bring about change. Her remark was interpreted by many in Egypt as backing Mursi. She was ridiculed in signs hoisted around Cairo.
"Instead of coming out much earlier and firmer on the issue of Muslim Brotherhood democratic transgressions, they sent a very confused message. They sent the message that we were essentially backing and supporting the Mursi government and that has undermined our credibility," said Aaron David Miller, who served six U.S. secretaries of state as a Middle East expert.
U.S. officials said a full reading of Patterson's remarks makes clear she was not taking sides in Egyptian politics.
Any perceived missteps on Egypt thus far do not appear to be causing Obama trouble at home. Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle are holding back from attacking the president and instead focusing their ire at the Muslim Brotherhood, which they feel bungled the chance to solidify democracy there.
"It is so sad that the promise of the Egyptian Arab Spring was not fulfilled by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Let us hope that the next steps in Egypt's transition are truly reflective of the hopes and dreams of the vast majority of the Egyptian people," said Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California.
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle. Editing by Warren Strobel and Philip Barbara)