To his critics, especially on the right, Bush’s cardinal sin was timidity. He was the quintessential anti-Reagan. Where Reagan stood before the Berlin Wall and boldly chastised the Soviet Union, Bush stood before Ukrainians eager for independence and told them to calm down .(That speech earned the nick-name “Chicken Kiev” by New York Times columnist William Safire.) When protestors were butchered in Tiananmen Square, Bush’s criticism was muted. Though he celebrated the “new breeze” of freedom blowing across Europe, Bush and his foreign policy team always appeared more worried that the breeze would blow over the old order too quickly. ~Greg Scoblete

I came across Greg’s 2008 column on the virtues of the elder Bush’s “prudential realism” today, and it is striking to me how similar Obama’s overall approach to foreign policy has been. When Bush was in office, major changes were taking place throughout Europe and the USSR, and on the whole Bush’s response to those events was cautious, limited, and prudent. In retrospect, many Americans look back on the elder Bush’s administration’s tenure as the last time that the U.S. practiced a mostly sane and responsible foreign policy, and Bush is now widely credited for handling the swift, sudden changes in the world fairly well to the extent that the U.S. had any role in them. It is a measure of how warped foreign policy discourse has become that Obama can be faulted by self-styled conservatives for being too conservative and cautious, as if caution and prudence were things to be avoided rather than guiding principles.

What I find remarkable is just how certain so many critics of the elder Bush that he was not sufficiently bold, activist, or visionary, and how wrong they were. It is hard for me to take seriously those who insist Obama has responded poorly to the Egyptian uprising when many of them were likewise insisting that Obama “do something” for the Green movement. It is even harder when some of them continue to misrepresent Bush’s Kiev speech. The speech was filled with responsible advice on the potential dangers of political change and a statement of support for genuine democrats as opposed to opportunists and demagogues who would exploit the rhetoric of self-determination and self-government in abusive ways. “Chicken Kiev” is the interventionist’s catchphrase for denouncing a cautious approach to foreign political crises the same way that “Munich” is the tired slogan used to browbeat opponents of unnecessary wars and aggressive foreign policy. The difference is that the Kiev speech isn’t even what its detractors have made it out to be.

Anne Applebaum’s recent distortion of what the elder Bush said in 1991 may be the most glaring in its dishonesty:

In 1991, when Ukraine was about to declare its independence from the Soviet Union, President George H.W. Bush made a declaration (this was the infamous “Chicken Kiev” speech) in praise of the Soviet Union.

The speech became infamous because people in the U.S. lied about what Bush said, and they continue to lie about it even now. This is some of what President Bush actually said:

So, let me build upon my comments in Moscow by describing in more detail what Americans mean when we talk about freedom, democracy, and economic liberty.

No terms have been abused more regularly, nor more cynically than these. Throughout this century despots have masqueraded as democrats, jailers have posed as liberators. We can restore faith to government only by restoring meaning to these concepts [bold mine-DL].

I don’t want to sound like I’m lecturing, but let’s begin with the broad term “freedom.” When Americans talk of freedom, we refer to people’s abilities to live without fear of government intrusion, without fear of harassment by their fellow citizens, without restricting other’s freedoms. We do not consider freedom a privilege, to be doled out only to those who hold proper political views or belong to certain groups. We consider it an inalienable individual right, bestowed upon all men and women. Lord Acton once observed: The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities.

Freedom requires tolerance, a concept embedded in openness, in glasnost, and in our first amendment protections for the freedoms of speech, association, and religion — all religions.

Tolerance nourishes hope. A priest wrote of glasnost: Today, more than ever the words of Paul the Apostle, spoken, 2,000 years ago, ring out: They counted as among the dead, but look, we are alive. In Ukraine, in Russia, in Armenia, and the Baltics, the spirit of liberty thrives.

But freedom cannot survive if we let despots flourish or permit seemingly minor restrictions to multiply until they form chains, until they form shackles. Later today, I’ll visit the monument at Babi Yar — a somber reminder, a solemn reminder, of what happens when people fail to hold back the horrible tide of intolerance and tyranny.

Yet freedom is not the same as independence. Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local depotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.

We will support those who want to build democracy. By democracy, we mean a system of government in which people may vie openly for the hearts — and yes, the votes — of the public. We mean a system of government that derives its just power from the consent of the governed, that retains its legitimacy by controlling its appetite for power. For years, you had elections with ballots, but you did not enjoy democracy. And now, democracy has begun to set firm roots in Soviet soil.

How dare he praise the Soviet system so egregiously! Of course, there is hardly anything in this speech with which most Americans could seriously disagree, and those things that do come across as nods to the status quo can be explained when we understand the diplomatic context in which Bush was operating. He gave the speech on August 1, 1991, which was just a few weeks before the coup attempt against Gorbachev. Gorbachev was promoting an idea of reorganizing the USSR along more decentralized lines, and this is why Bush was citing lessons from the experience of the early American republic. As it turned out, some of the speech became redundant when the USSR fell apart, but most of it is so unobjectionable that it is startling to see how people shamelessly use the speech as a means to shame people into supporting “bold” action.

Elsewhere in the speech, Bush made a statement that we can only wish would have been the guiding principle of U.S. relations with the former Soviet republics:

We will determine our support not on the basis of personalities but on the basis of principles. We cannot tell you how to reform your society. We will not try to pick winners and losers in political competitions between Republics or between Republics and the center. That is your business; that’s not the business of the United States of America.

All of that sounds very sensible. It’s a pity that one of the better speeches by an American President on the question of building and sustaining a liberal and democratic political order continues to be tarred by people who have probably never read it, or who choose to misrepresent it to score some cheap points in the name of reckless idealism. It’s also a reminder that the contemporary reactions by over-eager, idealistic observers initially sound more appealing than the cautious, restrained response from an administration, but it is usually caution and restraint that prove to be the wiser course. Those who demand quick action, “bold” leadership, and immediate changes in policy have usually not given much thought to the consequences, especially the unintended ones, and they are usually in the grip of an enthusiasm that distorts their perceptions and judgments.