The ensuing instability since the ouster of Mubarak and Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the death of Gadhafi and the power transfer deal ending the reign of Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh has led some foreign policy experts — particularly conservatives and former Bush administration officials — to question whether Washington acted unwisely by siding with the protesters. Such language has even crept into the presidential campaign, with Republican Mitt Romney vowing to "strive to ensure that the Arab Spring is not followed by an Arab Winter."
After 20 months, the Arab Spring continues to polarize even conservatives, dividing those who see in it the triumph of freedom from those who criticize Obama for abandoning traditional friendships with leaders like Mubarak and say he helped usher in instability and the rise of political Islam.
Administration officials say they aren't looking at the current crisis through the prism of the Arab Spring, and note that demonstrations have occurred in stable and instable countries, and those with governments both friendly and hostile to the United States.
The protests are occuring for a variety of reasons, analysts cautioned, including domestic anger with governments still unable to deliver good jobs and better living conditions.
"Look at Egypt: Who are these guys?" asked Haim Malka, a Middle East specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "They are young men, unemployed men, angry about the lack of change in their societies."
Still, he said regime changes from Tunis to Sanaa "have released violent anti-American forces that the previous regimes largely kept in check." The violence at U.S. diplomatic installations "raises questions about the ability and the willingness of the new governments in the Middle East to impose order, and also to cooperate with the U.S. on a whole range of activities."
Andrew Tabler at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said the attackers are fringe extremists, but in places such as Libya they are armed and dangerous, and can take advantage of a new political order with greater freedom and authorities less likely to use brute force.
"There are constraints on these new governments. They are not as authoritarian and are more accountable," he said. For the U.S., he said, "the people are a factor in these countries now, and it's harder to deal with than talking to the dictator." He called for even greater engagement to figure out who can be good U.S. partners in the region.
Danin said he didn't see this week's ongoing violence leading toward consensus on the question of greater or less American engagement with the Arab world's new democracies.
"This won't resolve any debates," he said. "It will only fuel them."
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