The Weekly Standard
President Obama’s apparent frustration that he and his senior policymakers were taken by surprise with recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, reminds us of Yogi Berra’s famous line, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.” Some momentous event occurs on the world scene—whether it’s the Soviets putting nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba, the shah of Iran’s ouster, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, or the fall of the Berlin Wall—and the American president wants to know why his intelligence community did not give him a timely heads up. So too, now, with popular revolts toppling long-standing Arab dictatorships, Obama wants to know why the intelligence community was once again taken by surprise.
In one sense, no one should have been surprised by the fall of Tunisia’s Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. History shows that autocracies, unlike liberal democracies, always look more stable than they are. While their security apparatuses may enable them to hang on for long periods of time, eventually domestic intelligence services can’t make up for the lack of widespread support.
What the president and others are complaining about is that the vast and well-resourced American intelligence system apparently did not provide sufficient tactical warning about what was to occur in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere—leaving the administration largely unprepared to deal with a cresting political tsunami in the Middle East that may turn out to be a strategic game changer on the order of the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, these criticisms almost always reflect a lack of clarity about what we should expect the CIA and the intelligence community to be able to do and, in turn, what we cannot expect them to do.