In the popular telling, the story begins with a vegetable vendor in Tunisia. On Dec. 17, 2010, 26-year old Mohamed Bouazizi, for years harassed and humiliated by corrupt local authorities, set himself on fire in a front of a provincial government office four hours south of the seaside capital, Tunis. Bouazizi died 18 days later, but in his ultimate, defiant act, had successfully incited what we now call the Arab Spring.
Within the American foreign policy community, President Obama's response to the revolutionary wave that followed has drawn mixed reviews. Breaking up mostly down party lines, even the sharpest criticism has largely failed to pull domestic attention away from a bumbling jobs market and this increasingly boisterous election season.
But the skeptics are growing louder now as attention returns to the region following a string of high-profile attacks on the U.S. embassies in Egypt and Libya, and the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, inside the consulate in Benghazi.
His critics say President Obama has been too passive, too willing to see the moderates who drove the Arab Spring – from Egypt, to Libya and certainly in Syria, where an estimated 30,000 have died in a de facto civil war – die for their cause or else be subsumed by Islamist groups who've stepped into the post-revolutionary breach.
In the place of a cohesive strategy or "doctrine" to guide his response, they say, the president has created a vacuum that pulls in the region's most destructive forces.
U.S. actions in the region have appeared "very ad hoc," Richard Grenell, a former spokesman for U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations, tells ABC News. "It's a new day and a day the Obama administration failed to realize."
Briefly employed by the Romney campaign, Grenell backed the candidate's decision to move quickly in condemning the president's response to the initial violence in Cairo and Benghazi, which Liz Cheney, the outspoken daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney, called the "logical outcome of three-and-a-half years of Obama foreign policy."
Grenell says that the White House's decisions today are driven by "who is pushing and asking: How do we calm the situation down? It's the 'squeaky wheel' doctrine, as proven by Libya. Only when France was complaining did the president choose to do something."
Nato's intervention in Libya, which began as a humanitarian effort to save the besieged city of Benghazi, eventually grew into an air and ground campaign, with the U.S. providing the bulk of the military support to rebel forces, who would depose and kill dictator Moammar Gadhafi months later.
Citing Libya as proof of its dedicated engagement, the Obama camp bristles at any suggestion the White House has abdicated a leadership role in the most dynamic regional transition since the end of the Cold War.
They maintain that the president, in concert with Hillary Clinton at the State Department, has used all the tools of the American diplomatic corps to guide and support states in the region now trying to rebuild their governments within more democratic frameworks.