It is apparent to all observers that the recent revolutions in the Middle East caught the administration completely off-guard. Because of that, the administration has essentially been playing catch-up, making up its policy as it goes along. Because of that, the United States has been much pretty much a bystander in events, issuing pronouncements about the current state of affairs but powerless to actually do anything about them.
Here’s the question, though: even if we could have affected events in the Middle East, would it have been a good idea for the United States to do so?
When we talk about affecting events, we are presumably not talking about military options. Even if one thought a military intervention would be a good idea, our military is currently stretched somewhat thin in Iraq and Afghanistan. Further, there would appear to be little appetite among Americans for another substantial military engagement.
Thus, if we’re talking about how the United States could have affected events in the Middle East, other than just talking, we’re talking about an intelligence operation that would have to have begun some time ago. The United States would have had to identify opposition elements which could be trusted to be favorable to the United States if they came into power, and which had leaders with the ability to lead competently both during and after a revolution. We then would have had to find a way to support those elements very quietly, with no way to actually tie them to the United States, because if they were so tied they would be viewed as our puppets and we would be held responsible for what they did.
Could we have accomplished this? Possibly, but I have my doubts. The track record of the United States, or any other country for that matter, in accomplishing such things is not very good. It seems at least equally likely that, had we tried to do such things, we would have backed the wrong horse, or backed the right horse in a ham-handed way which made our influence obvious. While things may not be good now, they might have been a good deal worse had the United States taken an active role in trying to steer events in a certain way.
This is not to suggest that our wise and far-seeing president knew this all along, and that appearing to be caught off-guard was part of a deliberate strategy on our part. In this case, however, it may have worked out for, if not the best, then at least not the worst, either. It may be frustrating for a great power to have to sit and watch events unfold with no ability to do anything about them, but in this case, it may be that nothing was the best thing for the United States to do.