By PETER BAKER FEB. 24, 2014
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 a president already rethinking his 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, Mr. 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, Mr. Obama has not made global aspirations of democracy the animating force of his presidency. …
“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. …
To some critics, though, that justifies a policy of passivity that undercuts core American values.
“The administration’s Ukraine policy is emblematic of a broader problem with today’s foreign policy — absence of a strategic vision, disinterest [sic] in democracy promotion and an unwillingness to lead,” said Paula J. Dobriansky, an under secretary of state for Mr. Bush.
Mr. Obama’s commitment to democracy promotion has long been debated.
Advocates say he has increased spending on projects that encourage democratic reform in places like Africa and Asia while directing money to support changes in the Arab world. At the same time, they said, he has cut back on democracy promotion in Iraq, Pakistan and Central Asia.
One of the strongest advocates for democracy promotion in Mr. Obama’s circle has been Michael A. McFaul, first the president’s Russia adviser and then ambassador to Moscow. But Mr. McFaul is stepping down. Mr. Obama’s nominee for the assistant secretary of state who oversees democracy programs, Tom Malinowski, has been languishing since July waiting for Senate confirmation.
For Mr. Bush, the focus on spreading democracy preceded his decision to invade Iraq, but it was inextricably linked to the war after the failure to find the unconventional weapons that had been the primary public justification. The goal of establishing a democratic beachhead in the Middle East began driving the occupation, but it became tarnished among many overseas because of its association with the war.
… In January 2005, Mr. Bush declared it his policy to support democracy “in every nation” with “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
For a time, Ukraine was a model. The newly elected president, Viktor A. Yushchenko, was welcomed at the White House and addressed a joint session of Congress. “It was the poster child for ‘democracy can work, we’re on a roll,’ ” said Steven Pifer, a former ambassador to Ukraine now at the Brookings Institution.
Yet like other places, the heady days in Kiev eventually gave way to political paralysis and retrenchment. Mr. Yushchenko failed to consolidate support and ultimately was replaced by his nemesis, Mr. Yanukovych, in a democratic election.
Wait a minuite … The tyrant who was just driven out in a violent coup was democratically elected? That`s confusing.
The unresolved debate over whether Ukraine should be more tied to Europe or Russia led back to a similar showdown over the past weeks and months, this time more violent, with more than 80 killed.
So, all those masked men with clubs weren`t protesting for democracy but for whose team Ukraine would be on?
… On the ground has been Victoria Nuland, an assistant secretary of state who previously worked for Mr. Bush’s administration and is passionate about anchoring Ukraine in the West. A leaked recording of a conversation she had during the height of the events showed her discussing ways to bring the opposition into the government.
That`s putting it mildly.
Mr. Obama waited until last week, three months into the crisis, to make his first statement in front of cameras. Aides said he wanted to wait until the critical moment, and it came when Americans saw indications that Mr. Yanukovych might turn loose the military on the protesters. …
Critics saw that as too little, too late. “Regrettably, the West viewed the situation as a crisis that needed to be tamped down rather than an opportunity for positive change,” said David Kramer, a former Bush administration official now serving as president of Freedom House, a nonprofit group that advocates democracy around the world.
Others said caution might be justified. “It doesn’t seem to me that the Obama administration is so invested in that democracy theme,” said Mr. Pifer, but that “may not be a bad thing.” …