"Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the Obama administration has been engaged to support democratic transitions in the Arab world," former Nato commander Gen. Wesley Clark said late Thursday. "At the same time, we will continue to stand up for America's core interests in the region – countering terrorism, preventing nuclear proliferation in Iran, and standing squarely by our strongest ally in the region, Israel."
This, the Obama team would argue, is the essence of a would-be "Obama Doctrine," and the rationale for its deadly campaign of drone strikes on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
There is little dispute among the interested parties that the administration has, as the "Arab Spring" continues to unfold and unwrap itself more than 20 months after it began, been confronted with a kind of diplomatic challenge unseen in generations. Even during the darkest days of the Cold War, with half of Europe in shadows behind the Iron Curtain, the U.S. had only one mysterious foreign capital to decipher. The stakes – nuclear war, to start – might have been starker then, but the challenges have never come in greater volume, or at such a startling pace.
It was, after all, just four weeks after young Bouazizi's self-immolation, with mass demonstrations raging across the country and violent clashes on the streets of the capital, Tunis, that strongman president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali stepped down, fleeing the country for exile in Saudi Arabia. Day later, new protests began to percolate across the Middle East and North Africa, most notably in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria.
In response, Democrats say, the administration has worked off the idea that there are different ways to wield influence in different countries, that crafting unique plans of action is preferable to imposing a blanket policy on a traditionally unstable region still in the twisting throes of a generational upheaval.
But the Lebanese-American Al-Hayat columnist Raghida Dergham worries that the White House's desire to show progress could, in turn, lead them to abandon the secular-minded youth who set the Arab Spring into motion.
"No one is calling for [Islamist parties like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood] to be excluded," she says, "but when you have this approach to embrace the Muslim Brotherhood and drop the moderates, it does two things: Weakens the moderates and it adds to this legacy of betrayal.
"If you want democracy, you don't just think of elections, you must think about rights."
President Obama, speaking to Spanish-language network Telemundo Wednesday, refused to call the current Egyptian government an "ally," even though, technically, they have been and remain just that.
The relationship is "a work in progress," Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, said Thursday, "but certainly in this situation, what we're going to expect is that they are responsive to our insistence that our embassy is protected, our personnel is protected."
Meanwhile, Raghida Dergham warns that a failure to forge more active investment in moderate political movements in countries like Egypt and Libya leaves the street vulnerable to exploitation by hardcore Islamist groups, like the one that allegedly carried out the lethal attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.
"All the moderates want is recognition by the U.S.," she says. "They want us to reach out so that they can say, 'we matter.'"