It was only a matter of time before Michael Gerson would begin weeping green tears and telling us how immoral Obama’s restrained response was. As one might expect, we are supposed to believe that it is a problem that Obama’s foreign policy is similar to that of the elder Bush, who was, for all of his many flaws and mistakes, probably one of the most successful foreign policy Presidents of the last half-century. We cannot really blame Gerson for persisting in his obsessions, since he has to find some way to make the record of the President he served and enabled for years look like something other than the catastrophic failure that it was. In this case, mocking Bush’s more accomplished father is what he feels compelled to do.
It has become conventional to deride the elder Bush’s 1991 speech in Kiev warning against Ukrainian independence, but looking back over the last twenty years, especially in the Balkans and the Caucasus, there is something to be said for having warned against “suicidal nationalism.” Given the ethnic heterogeneity in Ukraine and the fiercely anti-Russian nature of Ukrainian nationalism, the region has been fortunate that the potential for continued political fracturing that the principle of self-determination possesses has not been realized there. The pity is that Bush did not do more to warn the peoples of Yugoslavia against the same thing a year earlier.
Self-determination is one of those things that sounds lovely in principle, but which has caused a great deal of human suffering around the world. It is, of course, the corrupt idol of Wilsonian idealism, before which Gerson prostrates himself daily. It was this principle that shattered the Austrian empire and broke it up into easily digestible bits, creating a power vacuum in central Europe that major powers were only too happy to fill soon thereafter, and it was this principle that plunged the Balkans into a decade of hell. Not that it gets much attention, but it was also the principle that sparked the Eritrean-Ethiopian war that has cost both countries thousands upon thousands of lives and wrecked their political cultures ever since. When great multinational states break up, it has rarely been a peaceful process. If Bush erred in 1991, which is very debatable, he wisely erred on the side of caution to prevent conflagrations from consuming the ex-Soviet republics. At the time Bush was speaking, Azeris and Armenians were still fighting over Karabakh, and Yugoslavia was beginning to come apart. It would have been dangerous and, of course, harmful to relations with Moscow to cheer on separatist movements.
Having said all that, the relevant comparison with Iran from the administration of the first Bush is not the speech in Kiev, but Bush’s utterly irresponsible call for Iraqi Shi’ites to rise up against Hussein when he had no intention of aiding them. Not getting more deeply involved in Iraq was wise, but urging people to risk their lives when you have no intention of providing anything but empty rhetorical support is a gross error. Let’s be clear: Gerson wants Obama to incite the protesters and urge them to seek “freedom,” which in practice will mean provoking them to greater and greater confrontation with the government and ensuring that the crackdown against them will be even more bloody and cruel than it has been so far. Their blood will flow so that Gerson’s bleeding heart can rest easy.