Bush’s words on Ukraine ring true

Anyone care for a microwaved dish of “Chicken Kiev”? History buffs may recall that was how New York Times columnist William Safire characterized a speech that President George H.W. Bush gave to the Ukrainian parliament on Aug. 1, 1991, when, as Safire put it, “he lectured Ukrainians against self-determination.”

Yet seen from today, some of Bush’s larger concerns about how Russia might react to losing Ukraine seem, to use one of Poppy’s favorite words, “prudent.” Moreover, the kerfuffle around Bush’s speech is a useful reminder of the long-running struggle between foreign-policy realists and idealists — not least within the Bush family itself.

Here’s some of the context: In July 1991, Bush went to Moscow to, among other things, sign the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Mikhail Gorbachev, who was struggling to hold the Soviet Union together and retain his grip on power. Personally sympathetic to Gorbachev, Bush and others in his administration were also convinced that the best hope for stability in the now-shaky USSR was the creation of a new, looser union of federated states. Part of their concern was over the fate of nuclear weapons in Ukraine and other republics. But Bush &Co. were also worried about outbreaks of ethnic nationalism and separatist conflict a la the former Yugoslavia, a scenario that Gorbachev played up.

So when Bush arrived in Kiev to a warm welcome, his speech contained a warning to Ukrainians that “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 despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.”

Safire pounced: “Why isn’t the President of the United States on the air welcoming the Russians, Ukrainians and all to the free world, urging the dissolution of the police and cutbacks in the army, showing the path to prosperity? … Mr. Bush, in a policy paralysis he calls prudence, is barking ‘not so fast’ from a golf cart.”

On a trip to Ukraine in 2004, Bush claimed that the purpose of his message had been to tell Ukrainians not to do “something stupid. If your leaders hadn’t acted smartly, there would have been a crackdown” from Moscow. (Brent Scowcroft, Bush’s national security adviser, wrote in their book “A World Transformed” that the reference to “local despotism” was aimed not at Ukraine but at Yugoslavia, Moldavia and other Soviet republics “where an upsurge of intolerant nationalism threatened the outbreak of major violence.”) As Bush and Scowcroft make clear, both Gorbachev and later Boris Yeltsin were deeply concerned about the prospect of a precipitous Ukrainian breakaway. The USSR’s foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, warned U.S. Ambassador Robert Strauss that it might trigger a harsh response from elements in the Soviet military. More than two decades later, the forceful response of Vladimir Putin to just the defenestration of the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych suggests that those concerns were hardly misplaced.

Safire had little patience for such prudence. (In the same column, he also said that “Mr. Bush blundered grievously in the giveback of Iraq.”) Neither did George W. Bush. In addition to, um, rectifying his father’s “giveback” of Iraq, he pushed forcefully (and unsuccessfully) for Ukraine to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. If that had happened, the United States and Russia might be trading not just barbs, but bullets and bombs.

Safire noted in 2004 that the elder Bush never spoke to him after he wrote his Chicken Kiev column. In 2006, however, his son saw fit to give the columnist the Medal of Freedom. Thank God, at least, that the U.S. is no longer hostage to that little Oedipal drama.

James Gibney is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesgibney.

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