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Reticence and Revolution

The following piece appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Republican critics of President Obama’s low key response to the unfolding events in Iran are fond of saying that this president should be more like Ronald Reagan who, when the Cold War was winding down, railed against “the evil empire” and boldly told Mr. Gorbachev to tear down the wall that separated East and West Berlin.  There is no question that President Reagan was a rhetorical cold warrior of the highest order, but he was not actually our chief executive when the political revolutions in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union came to full fruition.

That fate fell to his successor—George H. W. Bush—who responded to revolutionary developments around the world in much the same way that President Obama is responding to news from Iran.  The elder President Bush was consistently cautious; his foreign policy speeches and public statements were measured and muted despite dramatic events in Tiananmen Square, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Berlin and Moscow.

He paid a price for his reticence.  Bush was brilliantly lampooned on Saturday Night Live by Dana Carvey who made a catch phrase out of the fragment sentence, “Wouldn’t be prudent,” that the impersonated president used in response to nearly any suggestion that the nation needed to do something.  He was also criticized by many of the same conservative commentators who now lament Obama’s caution.  When he spoke in the Ukrainian capital at the height of tensions over nationalist independence movements in the Soviet Union his remarks were dubbed “the Chicken Kiev” speech in a putdown that was remembered long after the speech was forgotten.

So why did the first President Bush ignore the comedians and the critics and maintain his cautious rhetorical strategy?  He did it for a variety of reasons, some of which probably motivate President Obama today.
H. W. Bush was obviously not an accomplished public speaker like Ronald Reagan.  In that element of presidential performance he could never win a favorable comparison to his predecessor and may have been justifiably reluctant to try.  He was unusually modest for a politician and a president and was almost always uncomfortable claiming credit for accomplishments.  So there were political and personal reasons for an intentional avoidance of eloquence and grandstanding.

But there were also professional reasons.  The first President Bush was a national and international public servant who rose to power the way British prime ministers make their ascent, by loyally serving in a long list of appointed and elected offices.  He arrived in the White House with lots of international experience, a collection of personal friends across the globe, and a sophisticated understanding of how the world works.  He had the disposition of a diplomat.

He genuinely believed that excessive American and western celebration of the collapse of the Berlin wall would make it harder to negotiate a successful reunification of Germany and harder for Gorbachev to stay in power.  He believed that open and active American support for the independence movements in the Baltic republics would be counterproductive.  It would make Moscow less willing to contemplate and accommodate regional autonomy and more likely to use force.  It would put pressure on Gorbachev who was, throughout this period, the essential lever in the heavy lifting of the Iron Curtain.

The elder President Bush was not politically naïve or foolish.  He understood that in the short term it would be popular in America, and particularly in Reagan’s Republican Party, to claim credit for the favorable events in Europe, “to dance on the Berlin wall.” But it wouldn’t be prudent.  And it wouldn’t have been in the long-term interest of the United States to take the risks that accompanied the credit.

Ronald Reagan is the president that conservatives love to remember, but George H. W. Bush was the president who actually managed the tumultuous events from 1989 to 1991 when revolutions were bringing the Cold War to a decisive, peaceful and largely unexpected conclusion.

Today, we may be witnessing the emergence of another surprising revolutionary movement with the potential to overturn a regime that has been a long-standing American adversary.  Barack Obama, who could compete with Ronald Reagan’s capacity for eloquence, may be well advised in this case to avoid statements that would distract from the powerful and unpredictable domestic forces at play in Iran.

If President Obama needs lessons from a Republican predecessor, maybe he should take them from the president who has the most experience watching and weighing revolutionary movements overseas.

Robert Strong is the associate provost and Wilson Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee University.  He is currently writing a book about foreign policy decisions in the first Bush presidency.