It was August 1991. The Berlin Wall had fallen two years earlier. The Soviet Union tottered on the verge of collapse. The evil empire’s newly independent republics were deciding whether to stick with Moscow or go it alone.
President George H.W. Bush traveled to the Ukraine … and delivered what may have been the worst speech ever by an American chief executive.
Concerned that the dissolution of a nuclear-armed superpower might spark chaos, Bush encouraged the Ukrainians to stick with the Soviets. New York Times columnist William Safire dubbed it “the Chicken Kiev speech.” The Ukrainians didn’t care for it, either. Within months, they voted for freedom.
American presidents should always champion liberty. Our nation was founded on the principle that all people have a God-given, universal right to freedom. Furthermore, the more free nations there are in the world, the safer it is for all nations — including America.
Bush’s speech was wrong-headed, then, for both philosophical and practical reasons. What forced the error was his fear of what might follow the collapse of the Soviet Union.
President Barack Obama has faced similar struggles. Though determined to “engage” the Middle East, he has yet to craft a freedom strategy for the region that matches reality with rhetoric.
Before the current upheavals, all energy was focused on negotiating just settlements with two very unjust governments: Iran and the Palestinian Authority. Both causes proved predictably hopeless.
Negotiating in good faith with Iran is like asking the inmates to help manage the asylum. Likewise, seeking a peace settlement with the Palestinian Authority or Hamas makes no sense until they are willing to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist.
When cries for freedom broke out in Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution and, more recently, in the protests against Egypt’s Mubarak, Obama’s initial reaction was to repeat Bush’s mistake. He sided with stability. Rather than acknowledge and support the call of freedom, he opted to negotiate with status-quo, anti-democratic regimes.
Now, embroiled in combat action in Libya, Obama finds himself a reluctant freedom fighter, swept along by history. Sadly, his current embrace of action (if not rhetoric) aimed at regime change appears to have little to do with judgment.
The White House to-do-list for Libya is short, sweet-sounding, and exceedingly difficult: (1) protect the innocents; (2) prevent/limit support to terrorist groups; and (3) undercut aid to the regime and work to bring its leaders to justice. Laudable goals, certainly, but it’s now clear that the president leaped into the fray without any clear understanding of how to accomplish any of them.
Sentiment and empathy are no substitute for strategy. Is it too much to ask that an American president devise strategies that are both principled and practical?
There are no “do-overs” in the real world. Obama must learn the lessons of his and his predecessors’ past failures — and not just for righting his Libyan strategy. The crises in Yemen and Syria continue to demand attention. As does Egypt, where Islamists hope to steal a march on freedom.
And Turkey continues to drift from liberty’s ranks. On Monday, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said his nation must ally with Iran to preserve global peace and solve regional problems. Looming over all, of course, is the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran.
There is no risk-free strategy for bringing freedom to the Middle East, but bringing freedom to that part of the world is the best long-term strategy. The region doesn’t need more Chicken Kiev. It demands a U.S. foreign policy that is principled, rational and prudent.
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage Foundation.