President Barack Obama's cautious response to the popular uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa has drawn frequent criticism. But a year after the Arab Spring protests began, some regional experts say, the administration’s strategy paid off.
December 17, 2010, in Tunisia. A street vendor, Mohamed Bouaziz, sets himself on fire in a protest against government policies and dies, becoming the catalyst for a Tunisian revolution and the Arab Spring.
Within months, demonstrations arise in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is ousted.
And by year's end, Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi is dead.
The U.S. and NATO provided air support to protect civilians against government forces in Libya.
US backs Arab reform
But the Arab Spring proved hard to predict. Leaders both friendly and unfriendly to the U.S. fell, and it wasn't until May that Obama firmly put the U.S. on the side of Arab reform.
"We support political and economic reform in the Middle East and North Africa that can meet the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people throughout the region. Our support for these principles is not a secondary interest," said Obama.
Eventual support by the U.S. for the Arab Spring prompted criticism that the administration had not been as supportive of Iranian protesters in 2009. But U.S. presidents often face difficult decisions where revolutions are concerned, said Walter Russell Mead, professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College.
"I think the idea that an American president of any party can sort of figure out from day one the deep master plan for dealing with revolutionary transformations in half a dozen strategically important countries, you know when you put it that way you realize that you can't," said Mead.
Applying key values
Obama based U.S. policy on core principles: opposing violence, universal rights and the right of people to choose their own leaders.
Were his calculations correct? Yes, says Kurt Werthmuller, a researcher at the Hudson Institute Center for Religious Freedom.
“I think we do have to address that, there has been a relationship, there has been an inspiration from one place to another, but every part of the Arab world is unique," said Werthmuller.
Samuel Tadros of the Hudson Institute said that while Obama was correct to not take a single, blanket approach, rapidly moving events at times drove administration policies.
"The administration’s answer to the Arab Spring very much reflected this interest in not being sidelined by the events of history, of jumping into the wagon of what was obviously taking place. And thus in many cases, an initial cautiousness that should have been there was removed and the street was driving the action rather than a clear policy in that regard," said Tadros.
Tadros and other regional experts caution that events in the Middle East are part of a long-term transformation, with risks, including the potential rise of Islamism in Egypt and potential civil war in Syria. They say the process will take decades to play out and will remain a challenge for U.S. presidents.