WASHINGTON — Televisions around the White House were aglow with pictures of Ukrainians in the streets, demanding to be heard and toppling a government aligned with Russia. It was an invigorating moment, and it spurred the president and his staff to rethink their approach to the world.
That was a different decade and a different president. While George W. Bush was inspired by the Orange Revolution of 2004 and weeks later vowed in his second inaugural address to promote democracy, Barack Obama has approached the revolution of 2014 with a more clinical detachment aimed at avoiding instability.
Rather than an opportunity to spread freedom in a part of the world long plagued by corruption and oppression, Obama sees Ukraine’s crisis as a problem to be managed, ideally with a minimum of violence or geopolitical upheaval. While certainly sympathetic to the pro-Western protesters who pushed out President Viktor F. Yanukovych and hopeful that they can establish a representatively elected government, Obama has not made global aspirations of democracy the animating force of his presidency.
“I just think this president is not going to lean forward on his skis with regard to democracy promotion,” said John Lewis Gaddis, a Yale University historian who advised the Bush White House as speechwriters worked on the former president’s January 2005 inaugural address promising to combat tyranny abroad. “If anything, he’s going to lean back and let natural forces take us there, if they do.”
Obama’s handling of Ukraine reflects a broader “policy of restraint,” as Gaddis termed it, keeping the United States out of crises like Syria, minimizing its involvement in places like Libya and getting out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It reflects, he said, not only fundamental differences between the presidents but an underlying weariness on the part of the U.S. public after more than a dozen years of war.
Turned off by what he saw as Bush’s crusading streak and seared by the dashed hopes of the Arab Spring, aides said Obama was wary of being proactive in trying to change other societies, convinced that being too public would make the United States the issue and risk provoking a backlash. The difference, aides said, was not the goal but the methods of achieving it.
“These democratic movements will be more sustainable if they are seen as not an extension of America or any other country, but coming from within these societies,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. “For the longer term, it is better to let the people within the country be the strongest voice while also ensuring that at the appropriate times you are weighing in publicly and privately.”
To some critics, though, that justifies a policy of passivity that undercuts core U.S. values.
“The administration’s Ukraine policy is emblematic of a broader problem with today’s foreign policy — absence of a strategic vision, disinterest in democracy promotion and an unwillingness to lead,” said Paula J. Dobriansky, an under secretary of state for Bush.