WASHINGTON — Televisions around the White House were aglow with pictures of Ukrainians in the streets, demanding to be heard and toppling a government aligned with Russia. It was an invigorating moment, and it spurred the president and his staff to rethink their approach to the world.
That was a different decade and a different president. While George W. Bush was inspired by the Orange Revolution of 2004 and weeks later vowed in his second inaugural address to promote democracy, Barack Obama has approached the revolution of 2014 with a more clinical detachment aimed at avoiding instability.
Rather than an opportunity to spread freedom in a part of the world plagued by corruption and oppression, the crisis is seen by Obama as a problem to be managed, ideally with a minimum of violence or geopolitical upheaval.
While certainly sympathetic to the pro-Western protesters who pushed out President Viktor F. Yanukovych and hopeful that they can establish a representatively elected government, Obama has not made global aspirations of democracy the animating force of his presidency.
“I just think this president is not going to lean forward on his skis with regard to democracy promotion,” said John Lewis Gaddis, a Yale University historian who advised the Bush White House as speechwriters worked on the former president’s January 2005 inaugural address promising to combat tyranny abroad. “If anything, he’s going to lean back and let natural forces take us there, if they do.”
Obama’s handling of Ukraine reflects a broader “policy of restraint,” as Gaddis termed it, keeping the United States out of crises like Syria, minimizing its involvement in places like Libya and getting out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It reflects, he said, not only fundamental differences between the presidents but an underlying weariness on the part of the US public after more than a dozen years of war.
Turned off by what he saw as Bush’s crusading streak and seared by the dashed hopes of the Arab Spring, Obama was wary of being proactive in trying to change other societies, convinced that being too public would make the United States the issue and risk provoking a backlash, according to aides.
“These democratic movements will be more sustainable if they are seen as not an extension of America or any other country, but coming from within these societies,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. “For the longer term, it is better to let the people within the country be the strongest voice while also ensuring that at the appropriate times you are weighing in publicly and privately.”
To some critics, though, that justifies a policy of passivity that undercuts core US values.
“The administration’s Ukraine policy is emblematic of a broader problem with today’s foreign policy — absence of a strategic vision, disinterest in democracy promotion, and an unwillingness to lead,” said Paula J. Dobriansky, an under secretary of state for Bush.
Obama’s commitment to democracy promotion has long been debated. Advocates said he has increased spending on projects that encourage democratic reform in places such as Africa and Asia while directing money to support changes in the Arab world. At the same time, they said, he has cut back on democracy promotion in Iraq, Pakistan, and Central Asia.
One of the strongest advocates for democracy promotion in Obama’s circle has been Michael A. McFaul, first the president’s Russia adviser and then ambassador to Moscow. But McFaul is stepping down. Obama’s nominee for the assistant secretary of state who oversees democracy programs, Tom Malinowski, has been languishing since July waiting for Senate confirmation.
Obama waited until last week, three months into the crisis, to make his first statement in front of cameras.
Aides said he wanted to wait until the critical moment, and it came when Americans saw indications that Yanukovych might turn loose the military on the protesters. Obama followed with an hourlong phone call with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
Critics saw that as too little, too late. Others said caution might be justified.
“Given how fluid things are in Kiev, I’m not sure it would be wise to jump in there with advice, and I’m not sure the advice would be welcome,’’ said Steven Pifer, a former ambassador to Ukraine. “This may be a time where a little restraint on our part is a good thing.”