WASHINGTON -- Presidents dealing with foreign uprisings are haunted by two historical precedents. The first is Hungary in 1956, in which Radio Free Europe encouraged an armed revolt against Soviet occupation -- a revolt that America had no capability or intention of materially supporting. In the contest of Molotov cocktails vs. tanks, about 2,500 revolutionaries died; 1,200 were later executed.
The second precedent is Ukraine in 1991, where the forces that eventually destroyed the Soviet Union were collecting. President George H.W. Bush visited that Soviet republic a month before its scheduled vote on independence. Instead of siding with Ukrainian aspirations, he gave a speech that warned against "suicidal nationalism" and a "hopeless course of isolation." William Safire dubbed it the "chicken Kiev" speech, which fit and stuck. The first Bush administration was so frightened of geopolitical instability that it managed to downplay American ideals while missing a strategic opportunity. Ukrainian independence passed overwhelmingly.
In President Obama's snail-mail response to Iran's Twitter revolution, he has tended toward the chicken Kiev model. Which should come as no surprise. During the presidential campaign, Obama summarized his approach to foreign affairs: "It's an argument between ideology and foreign-policy realism. I have enormous sympathy for the foreign policy of George H.W. Bush." Such "realism" has translated into criticism of the Iranian regime that began as pathetic and progressed to mild. The intention seems obvious -- to criticize just enough to avoid appearing cynical, but not so much as to undermine the possibility of engagement with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the mullahs.
The practical justification for this approach is that American "meddling" would discredit the Iranian opposition. But this argument shows how simplistic "realism" often turns out to be. It is not necessary or advisable for an American president to directly criticize Iran's electoral process or actively support the opposition. Obama could, instead, have harshly criticized the regime thugs on motorbikes for breaking the heads of women and youth during protests, and led the world in condemning press and Internet censorship and the arrest of dissidents. Instead of critiquing Iran's political processes, he could have spoken out for human rights with firmness and clarity.