Again, however, there is this dangerous and fatuous notion that the United States has the ability to transform any event anywhere on the planet to its advantage. This is not so and has never been so. Even hyperpowers have their limits. The Iranian protestors, for instance, may dislike their leaders but only a cretin confuses with an enthusiasm for “American leadership”. More to the point, greater US “support” for the Green Protests could only have damaged the opposition cause. People arguing that Obama should have done “more” show that they are more concerned with seeing something being done than the practical consequences of that action. Results may be unimportant; what matters is adopting the proper posture. This may be many things but it is not serious foreign policy.
One thing to remember about any “who lost (fill in the blank)?” arguments is that they are almost always examples of selective, partisan outrage, which is made worse by partisan blind spots about abuses by allied and friendly countries. The Republican hawks furious with Obama for his “failures” to support the Green movement or more forcefully back the Syrian opposition didn’t make much noise when the Burmese junta crushed the “Saffron revolution” in 2007. The Bush administration did almost exactly what the Obama administration has done in response to the Syrian crackdown, but no one would seriously claim that Bush thereby “lost” Burma or missed an opportunity to overthrow the junta. The idea that politics stops (or used to stop) at the water’s edge has always been a myth, and partisan critics have seized on supposed “failures” of different administrations to control the politics of foreign countries for at least the last sixty years (Republican critics have generally been much worse about this in the last decade), which creates perverse incentives to attack the incumbent for “failing” to influence situations over which the U.S. has little or no control. Nothing better demonstrates the limits of American power than the internal political struggles of other countries, which outside governments can usually only influence at the margins unless they insist on militarized responses. Bizarrely, many interventionists and democratists see these foreign political struggles as obvious opportunities to be seized, as if all that it took to bring about regime change in another country is to demonstrate our public solidarity with the opposition and burden them with our frequently unwanted embrace.
One of the sillier complaints that Republican critics have made against Obama is that he only supports protest movements against U.S. client rulers such as Ben Ali and Mubarak. This is one of Santorum’s favorites. Leave aside that Ben Ali and Mubarak were not going to be able to hold on to power anyway (the Tunisian military was not going to kill protesters for Ben Ali, and the Egyptian military saw Mubarak becoming a threat to their control over the country). What Santorum and others are saying when they make this complaint is that Obama has been willing to use U.S. influence to some extent in those countries where the U.S. actually had significant influence. U.S. influence is naturally negligible in those countries where the populations are opposed to the U.S. or suspicious of our government’s motives, and the value of our government’s support is consequently minimal or even negative.