Sept. 14, 2012 -- 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."
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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.
"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.'"