An eye for an eye

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A week ago, ousted US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testified before the House of Representatives committee investigating charges which could lead to impeachment of the current occupant of the White House, Donald Trump. An experienced diplomat, Yovanovitch was cool, collected and convincing when making her presentation about Trump’s expulsion of her from her post in Kiev, although her term had been extended to the summer of 2020. During her presentation, Trump responded in characteristic fashion with an insulting and intimidating tweet: “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia, how did that go?”

Her physical appearance and demeanour during her testimony is likely to have been a factor in Trump’s response. She was “feminine,” well dressed and soft-voiced. She did not lose her temper when Trump issued his offensive tweet. She did not understand why there had been a smear campaign against her, attacking her reputation, and her abrupt recall.

Trump’s attitude toward Yovanovitch was exposed during a telephone conversation with Ukraine President Vlodymyr Zelinsky in July. Trump referred to her as “the woman” who was “bad news.” She was bad news because she refused to submit to Trump’s demand for her to press Ukraine for an investigation of Joe Biden, a leading Democratic rival in the 2020 presidential contest, and his businessman son Hunter Biden. Former Vice President Biden was the Obama administration’s anti-corruption representative to Ukraine at a time his son was on the board of a company which was under investigation for corruption. Trump’s demand for a probe of the Bidens for personal political advantage is regarded by Democrats as both a violation of US law and a means of reviving corruption in Ukraine at the very time the country is trying to battle it.

It is significant that Trump took in Yovanovitch’s testimony although he did not watch or tweet during the testimonies of two other career diplomats, George Kent and William Taylor. Brought out of retirement to succeed Yovanovitch, Taylor revealed new and damning evidence on Trump’s obsession with the Bidens.

Molly Jong-Fast, writing in the Atlantic, led by pointing out that the erratic and self-regarding Trump “couldn’t control himself on Twitter. He lashed out at Yovanovitch” who described the smear campaign during her appearance before the House Intelligence Committee which was televised and watched around the world.

Jong-Fast attributed his loss of control to Yovanovitch’s gender. “It is almost as if (Trump) is unable to control his rage against women. It is almost as if (he) can bully women and silence them.” He failed with Yovanovitch, who remains a serving foreign service officer and has a fellowship to teach a course at Georgetown University. It is not clear whether she could be fired at Trump’s insistence. Jong-Fast wrote, “Trump has a history of diminishing women, of taking them down when he feels challenged by them.”

Yovanovitch’s appearance was followed by an official who, at first hand, confirmed Taylor’s second hand account of a phone call between henchman Gordon Sondland, US ambassador to the European Union, and Trump during which he asked if the Ukraine was going ahead with the “investigation,” on which $400 million (Dhs1.5 billion) in US military aid depended. It had been frozen in mid-July by Trump. This was a flagrant violation of the US constitution which bans elected officials from using leverage to gain personal political advantage. Trump seems to be the first to get caught doing so.

Born in Canada in 1958 to Russian immigrant parents who moved to the US when she was three, Marie Yovanovitch in a naturalised citizen. A Russian speaker, she earned her BA in history and Russian studies. She studied at the Pushinn Institute in Moscow and secured a master’s degree from the National Defence University’s War College. She joined the foreign service in 1986 and served in Ottowa, Moscow, London and Mogadishu. Between 2001-2004 she was deputy chief of mission in Kiev, so she was well-versed in Ukrainian politics. Subsequently, she was ambassador to Krygyzstan and Armenia, having made ex-Soviet countries a speciality. She was, therefore, a diplomat with a great deal of experience in dealing with conflicted countries and became an anti-corruption crusader.

On this issue, US policy is selective and hypocritical. Washington pursues anti-corruption campaigns in some countries afflicted with graft, but not others. Ukraine and former Soviet republics seem to be targets of this attention, while longstanding pro-Western countries are not. For example, the US ignores Lebanon, where citizens are mounting a revolution against corruption and mismanagement; Egypt, where corruption is endemic and the regime arrests critics and opponents; and Israel, where one prime minister has been jailed for corruption and another, Binyamin Netanyahu, is facing an indictment for corruption. The US has also done nothing about Saudi Arabia where corruption has been rampant for decades. Without US prodding, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman launched his own anti-corruption drive, which not only procured assets for the state, but also intimidated potential opponents and won the support of young Saudis.

Washington’s policy is particularly hypocritical because the US itself is a highly corrupt country. Its elections are bought by billionaires and powerful groups such as the gun, Israel and pharmaceutical lobbies. Legislators and presidents refuse to deal with this because they benefit from it. Consequently, the US cannot rely on moral authority to press other countries to counter corruption. Its policy amounts to flagrant intervention in the domestic affairs of certain but not all countries where corruption is a problem. It would be a good idea for the US to exert its efforts to clean up its own act before interfering in other countries’ affairs.

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


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