James Carden is a contributing editor to The American Conservative magazine and is a frequent contributor to The National Interest and Russia Direct. Formerly an Advisor to the US Department of State, he resides in Washington, DC.
Despite the pretentions of our governing and pundit classes, America has neither the right nor the resources to act as a kind of tutor to burgeoning democracies.
Imagine if you will, living in a town almost completely inhabited by amnesiacs and you will get a fairly accurate picture of what it is like to live in the Washington, DC, of 2014. On Thursday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko met with President Obama and addressed a joint session of Congress where he proclaimed, to enthusiastic and sustained applause, "Democracy must support each other, or we will be destroyed one by one.” Not content with the $53 million package of non-lethal assistance that was put on offer (thus bringing total American expenditures on Ukraine to over $300 million in 2014 alone), Poroshenko warned his new friends that non-lethal aid is fine, but "we cannot win the war with blankets.”
After the speech, former US Ambassador to Ukraine and Atlantic Council scholar John Herbst appeared on Bloomberg News, If Herbst’s reaction was anything to go by, the 500-plus congressmen and senators in attendance weren’t the only ones inspired by Mr. Poroshenko’s command performance. Bristling with the indignation that has become a specialty of our Beltway pundit-warriors, Herbst opined that it was "past time” that the United States provide lethal aid to the Ukrainians, specifically anti-tank, anti-missile and anti-aircraft weaponry. When asked if, perhaps, funneling more weapons into what was only very recently a war zone might escalate the conflict, Herbst replied "No” because arming the Ukrainians is "the only way Putin will back down.” So it’s clear that the former US ambassador to Ukraine, echoing Poroshenko, has little or no interest in whether the tenuous cease-fire between the rebels and Kiev holds or not; and one can’t help but suspect he’d prefer the latter. Keep in mind that a cease-fire could conceivably lead to a negotiated settlement and put an end to the nearly year-long crisis that, to date, has killed nearly 2,600 people.
While Herbst was reading from Poroshenko’s script on Thursday, it was not so long ago—back in 2006—that Poroshenko was the subject of a number of cutting assessments provided to the State Department by none other than, wait for it, Ambassador John Herbst. In May, The Washington Post reported that Herbst and other top officials at the US Mission in Kiev had a none-too-high opinion of the young up-and-coming oligarch turned politico. Herbst had described him as a "discredited” and "disgraced oligarch” who was a "net-minus” for his political party, the Party of Regions. Herbst’s deputy, an estimable career Foreign Service officer, described Poroshenko as being "tainted by credible corruption allegations.” But now that Poroshenko has come before Congress—and the handful of Americas who probably bothered to tune in—to sing from the pro-democracy hymnal, all is apparently forgiven.
If our Beltway amnesiacs cannot harken all the way back to 2006, there is little hope that they’d be able to (or, more to the point, willing to) bestir their cerebrum and think back to a similar gathering held in the very same hall back in June 1992. It was there that the new president of another rather large Eastern European nation took to the podium and intoned: "It is indeed a great honor for me to address the Congress of the great land of freedom…as a citizen of the great country which has made its choice in favor of liberty and democracy.”
Russian President Boris Yeltsin, whose speech was interrupted by jubilant cries of "Boris! Boris!” as well as nine standing ovations, then went on, in an eerily similar manner to Poroshenko, to assert that Russia and the United States must work together "to make the world safe for democracy.” And we know how that turned out. America, either not realizing or caring that Mikhail Gorbachev actually had already introduced parliamentary democracy to the USSR three years prior, embarked on its decade long infatuation with, as President Clinton was fond of calling him, "good ol’ Boris.”
That partnership led to, among other niceties, the largest economic and demographic collapse ever recorded in peace time. It led Russia into becoming a soft-authoritarian oligarchy that waged two heinous wars in Chechnya (during which time Mr. Clinton compared "good ol’ Boris” to none other than Abraham Lincoln). And rather than Russia transforming into a functioning democracy, it led to the direct hand off of power to a former KGB apparatchik who, it turns out, is arming and funding the very rebels which Mr. Poroshenko wants our help in destroying.
The lesson here is obvious: America, despite the pretentions of our governing and pundit classes, has neither the right nor the resources to act as a kind of tutor to burgeoning democracies. Yet an abysmal track record, no matter how long, will never, I suspect, be enough to convince our amnesiac elites.