The Obama Administration's Foreign Policy: Snatching Defeat From Every Set of Jaws Possible

Robert Kaplan has made a tidy niche career out of traveling through and documenting places Americans — and sadly American diplomats — continue to see as exotic and mysterious, and to which we consistently apply horrible policy because of those shortcomings. His travelogues of Eastern Europe and the Balkans especially can be summarized, not unfairly, as “Americans don’t understand people for whom history is not the past, but is a ghost living upstairs every day.” If our career foreign service were required to read his books as part of their entry training, our foreign policy would be a hundred times better.

Alas, our foreign policy class is more inclined to the sort of soft-leftism that sneers at the past while constantly looking to a future that will never happen. This is why they do so well with, and share so much in common with, Western Europeans who share the same intellectual and political tendencies; and so badly with everyone else, who do not. In that light, the Obama Administration’s masterful recent handling of China is both a refreshing surprise and a return to form; that is, a welcome change from years of deferential policy, and at the same time completely forgetting that the Chinese still live with the humiliation of the Opium Wars daily.

It’s a pattern that plays out across the globe, and no less so in Eastern Europe. Perversely, in Foggy Bottom, select episodes of history constantly live on, while critical elements of the past slip away like fog. So the Armenians are always under genocide, and never the aggressors in their own war; the Russians are always a revanchist imperial power, and not a dying natural gas giant unable to control its own Siberian border; and the Ukraine a Soviet puppet state, and not a nation struggling fitfully toward a fully functioning democracy.

This is why we end up with the State Department proudly announcing nuclear-control initiatives with Ukraine one week, and condemnations of the country for prosecuting and convicting its former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, the next. Really, it’s just more of the same.

Understanding Ukraine’s history and Tymoshenko’s would go a good way to stopping this before it starts. Because Tymoshenko is so tied into Ukraine’s recent history, it’s a good idea to get to know her as she is now and was then, to understand her country’s voyage from the crumbling of the Soviet Empire to the present. Fortunately, Matthew Kaminski, writing in the Wall Street Journal, just did that:

Hers is an improbable life. She makes billions overnight in a rough industry. She loses most of it and goes into politics. She falls from grace again, but then leads a democratic revolution. She becomes a powerful prime minister and dreams of the top job. She loses the election for president and begins to fade from the scene. But a bare-knuckled political rival won’t forget or forgive past slights. On Tuesday, one of his judges throws her in prison for seven years on transparently political charges. Now she’s a martyr. …

She started as an economist at a factory that built SS-18s and ICBMs in her hometown of Dnipropetrovsk. In late perestroika days, she got into business with her father-in-law, pirating films for VCR rentals and then transporting gasoline. …

Earlier that year, the new premier awarded her company [UES] an exclusive concession to deliver natural gas to Ukraine’s energy-guzzling factories. Monopoly power proved lucrative: UES tallied up revenues of $11 billion in 1996 alone, on which it paid, it was later revealed, just $11,000 in taxes. …

Between February 1996 and September 1997, UES wired at least $120 million into [Former Prime Minister Pavlo] Lazarenko’s accounts in Switzerland and Antigua, according to a subsequent U.S. investigation into money laundering, wire fraud and other alleged offenses committed by him. “All our business is designed to make Ukraine stronger,” Ms. Tymoshenko said that summer. Mr. Lazarenko sought asylum in the U.S., but a jury in San Francisco convicted him in 2004. He’s due to be released from a California prison next year. Both have denied any wrongdoing. …

After Mr. Lazarenko was forced out of office in July 1997, UES lost its political patronage and eventually went out of business. In a couple of years, Ms. Tymoshenko—by all accounts out of business for good—was a deputy prime minister in a Ukrainian government run by the eastern, Russian-speaking elites. Eventually she fell out with them, a common theme in her professional life.

When she re-emerged in 2004, at the head of street protests against her former political allies, Ms. Tymoshenko was reborn as a nationalist dressed and coifed in the style of a Ukrainian peasant girl. She was literally, and physically restyled, having been in the past the wealthy businesswoman nicknamed “The Gas Princess” she now went humble. She had perfected her Ukrainian and didn’t like to speak Russian. The Orange Revolution brought her back to power. Briefly a hero, she didn’t like to share the glory with another Orange leader, President Viktor Yushchenko, and their political marriage collapsed.

He lost support, then power. Her star rose. She ran her eponymous party and government with a heavy, some would say authoritarian, hand. In another role reversal, she grew close to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who condemned Tuesday’s court decision, calling it “dangerous” and “counterproductive.”

The entire thing is worth reading, and if you don’t have a Journal subscription, it’s worth the one-page purchase price. Tymoshenko’s protean transformations — to borrow Kaminski’s description — mirror the path of Ukrainian politics over the years; indeed, her recent conviction is merely an echo of her prosecution of the current President. Her success in the Orange Revolution was the first step to prosecuting the man she’d defeated, a prosecution short on international condemnation at the time.

A smart State Department would see a woman who has gone from apparently corrupt billionaire, to proud symbol of anti-Russian electoral freedom, to Prime Minister who tries to convict her political opponent (now President) for crimes older than the statute of limitations and who cozies up to Vladimir Putin, to disgraced opposition politician whose trial was marked by riots she apparently initiated in the courtroom itself. It would see Yanukovych leaving the days of Soviet dominance, to remaining a close political ally of Russia, to weaving a lurching but determined path between Western Europe and Russia, to the point at which Russia now openly backs Tymoshenko against Yanukovych. It would see Ukraine struggling out from under decades of Russian exploitation, with a sizable Russian minority, bobbing in and out of Russia’s orbit, but tracking closer and closer to the European Union — not least in its much-lauded, just-passed electoral reforms.

A smart State Department would ask: Who is the real Yanukovych? Who is the real Ukraine? Why is Vladimir Putin backing Tymoshenko if she is the voice of modernity? And will the real Tymoshenko please stand up?

A smart State Department would then ask whether we are pointing Ukraine in the wrong direction. Whatever his failings, Yanukovych is undeniably driving Ukraine into Europe’s, and not Russia’s embrace, both in Ukraine’s foreign policy and in the electoral and economic reforms on which he is staking his office. Is that something we want to endanger?

We don’t have a smart State Department. We have one that decries Tymoshenko’s conviction, then demands that Yanukovych overrule his judiciary and release her. The State Department is accusing Yanukovych of defiling the rule of law by allowing Tymoshenko’s prosecution and conviction, and demanding that he defile the rule of law by unilaterally voiding the conviction reached by a court of law.

One of the scariest things you can say is that this makes sense in Foggy Bottom.