Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee was crucial, not just because she set out the background for understanding the Ukrainian context of Trump’s meddling, but because she laid bare the tragedy revealed by the impeachment hearings.
The media coverage and political posturing surrounding the impeachment hearings are largely missing the great tragedy on display: American ambassadors in Ukraine were tasked with helping the country fight corruption at the highest levels of government. As Yovanovitch explains over and over, Ukraine is internally at war between the striving for the rule of law and “the same old oligarch-dominated Ukraine where corruption is not just prevalent, but frankly is the system.” American policy has been aimed at helping Ukraine to reform its institutions in order to clamp down on the systemic corruption that infests many former Soviet nations.
While fighting that corruption, American diplomats found their efforts undermined by the stench of the very same corruption overtaking the political establishment back home. Yovanovitch states that diplomats believe that “our government will have our backs and protect us if we come under attack from foreign interests. That basic understanding no longer holds true.” This is not an HR problem, as Devin Nunes insinuated. It goes to the core of the tragedy.
While being tasked with promoting Democratic practices, the diplomats found themselves doing so on behalf of a Government that had abandoned those practices; Yovanovitch’s testimony conveys the shock of discovering that she was removed, and her mission undermined, by petty bribery and shadow “diplomacy”. While Ukraine was struggling to move out of its swamp, the US was sinking into it. What makes Yovanovitch’s testimony even more compelling is that the corruption from which her embassy was trying to free Ukraine was the same corruption overtaking her homeland, on display in the figure of Paul Manafort and the very people — Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, working with Rudy Giuliani — who ousted her.
Yovanovitch repeatedly made the point clear with statements to the effect that it is difficult for Americans to understand the scale of corruption in former Soviet nations, where the prosecutor’s office is used as an instrument for pursuing political enemies. “To be clear,” she crisply tells us, “Ukraine is full of people who want the very things we have always said we want for the United States, a government that acts in the interest of the people, a government of the people, by the people, for the people.” The impeachment inquiry illustrates that, although we have always said we want these things, we seem ready to throw them away.
What is at issue is not some partisan bickering. The diplomats who have testified before Congress are not Democratic stooges. They have been appointed by, and served under Presidents of both parties, and both parties have traditionally recognized that corrupt governments abroad are bad for American interests. While neither party has been free of corruption, both have recognized that fighting corruption is key to a healthy democracy. By showing us the lay of the land in Ukraine, Yovanovitch shows us what is a stake for our country if corruption becomes entrenched and systemic. “Because when you reform, especially on the very sensitive issue of corruption issues, every time you make a decision, you’re probably going against your own interests or a friend’s interest”; corruption, once it sinks in, takes unimaginable structural change and decades of struggle to appoint new exterminators, who must be routinely replaced when they falter.
America does not have the institutions to root out such corruption. But we do have the institutions to prevent it from setting in. That is why the hearings are important, despite the fact that the Senate is likely too compromised to act. They lay out exactly what is at stake: the US has a choice between its historical legacy and petty Soviet-style corruption. In the end, we may well choose the latter, and the tragedy of the impeachment hearings is in how far we’ve been ready to go down that road. But we do not have to embrace the politics of Soviet-style Ukraine and Congress has been granted the power to halt that slippery slide, to let us reflect on the choice we are facing and where it might lead. If we choose to let short-term party interests take us further into that morass, we can at least do it with our eyes wide open. There is still time for this tragedy to be rewritten, and impeachment has placed the ink before us.