Did the Obama Administration miss a golden opportunity in the summer of 2009 to support the demonstrations of the Iranian Green Movement and maybe even once and for all get rid of the toxic government of Iran?

A lot of people around this town think so, and certainly so do a lot of Iranians who risked their lives with almost no support from the government of the United States. The Obama Administration, which has scrambled to keep up with unfolding events in the Arab Spring uprisings, is not usually one to admit mistakes.

Interestingly though, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon came very close to doing just that in an interview with Charlie Rose on January 26. For the record, it is worth taking note of Donilon’s tentative answer to the direct question from Rose:

Rose: At the time when a million Iranians were in the streets, should [the Obama Administration] have sent a stronger, more forceful message to the Iranian leadership and to the heroic people in the streets?

Donilon: I think that is a fair question. At the time, it was felt…judgments were made that…to get out publicly involved would not have advanced that cause. I think in light of the Arab Spring, that is a fair question. The President of the United States I think stands today forthrightly on a set of universal principles: opposing oppression and stands for universal rights and for government to be responsive to its people.

Rose: Based on what you said it seems to me there is some regret, but I will leave it at that.

One wishes that Rose, who hit the nail on the head with his question, had not been so diffident with the follow up. Nonetheless, the sort-of admission by Donilon of the Administration’s failure to support the Iranian Green Movement should be the first step in tightening the screws on Tehran. Looking at Donilon’s wording, one might conclude that, whereas President Obama today stands for universal principles, he did not do so in June 2009, when he failed the test presented by Iran’s democracy movement.

Unfortunately, that is not the case. The Administration made the same policy mistake regarding Syria, where it was also vainly attempting to engage a hostile regime over the heads of a repressed people. In contrast, the White House quickly moved to abandon the Mubarak regime in Egypt, which was a longtime ally against the Soviet Union, Iran, and Islamist extremists.

The unfortunate message that the Obama Administration broadcast was not that the United States stands behind democracy and human rights but that it quickly abandons its friends while assiduously courting hostile adversaries. The lesson learned by foreign governments was that it was risky to be America’s friend but not as risky to be an adversary.