No Dog in This Fight

Washington should learn from Ukraine's internal political turmoil that it should stop trying to pick sides in unpredictable political systems.

Washington has become an ugly place. Eight years of bitter Republican attacks on Bill and Hillary Clinton have been followed by eight years of bitter Democratic attacks on George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. But this venom cannot compare to the tidal wave of political hatred that has recently overwhelmed Ukraine's capital of Kiev.

Four years ago the Bush administration actively intervened in a disputed presidential election between Viktor Yushchenko-aided by Yulia Timoshenko-and Viktor Yanukovich. Yushchenko sold himself as the pro-American candidate and charged Yanukovich with electoral fraud. Yushchenko enjoyed manifold advantages in Washington: sympathy after his apparent poisoning by dioxin, the aid of his politically well-connected American wife, the fact he and many of his supporters spoke English and the aid of America's Ukrainian diaspora, which, like him, largely hailed from nationalistic western Ukraine. The United States and the European Union, aided by the NGO community, applied diplomatic pressure and spent freely to advance Yushchenko's campaign.

Yet the issue was always more complicated than the good-versus-evil meme sold in the West by Yushchenko's backers. In fact, both candidates were backed by oligarchs; Timoshenko herself had been charged with making money in the old-fashioned, corrupt way. Both Yushchenko and Yanukovich wanted to exploit an economic opening to the West while preserving good relations with Russia-their differences were more in degree than in kind. While there was undoubtedly electoral cheating, it was not clear if enough votes had been stolen to change the result. Yanukovich was far more popular than Washington wanted to acknowledge, reflected in the fact he currently heads the largest party in parliament.

Since then politics in Kiev has at times approached comic-opera status. Yushchenko and Timoshenko quickly fell out. Yushchenko dumped Timoshenko and made Yanukovich prime minister. After another election and divided outcome Yushchenko turned back to Timoshenko. They've since fallen out even more bitterly than before. Yushchenko threatened to fire her once again; his aides accused her of treason for refusing to back his anti-Russian course. She threatened to impeach him and teamed up with Yanukovich to push legislation to curb Yushchenko's power. She and Yushchenko are expected to battle for the presidency in 2010, but rumors are floating in Kiev that Timoshenko and Yanukovich have cut a deal to create a new parliamentary coalition and for him to run for a weakened presidency while she remains prime minister. But Yanukovich's party has fractured, with a faction backing Yushchenko. So it's not clear that he could deliver enough votes for such a switch.

Now Yushchenko has moved to break the coalition. We have been left hanging, a bit like a season ending episode of a long-running TV series. Whether he and Timoshenko will heal their breach, Timoshenko and Yanukovich will form a new alliance, or Ukraine will go to the polls is all up in the air. The saga continues.

If it wasn't apparent to Washington before, it should be now: politicians in Kiev are out for themselves, not for the United States. Washington is seen-especially by Yushchenko-as a valuable ally, but factional infighting takes precedence over philosophical principle and international friendship. Whoever ends up in control is likely to balance relations with Washington and Moscow. While Yushchenko has tied himself more closely to America, he has proved to be the least competent and least popular of the big three Ukrainian politicians. It looked like a good bet in 2004, but it has not paid off. The game wasn't worth playing.

There is an obvious lesson to take from Ukraine's bizarre political maneuvering: absent unusual circumstances, the United States should stop trying to pick favorites in messy, unpredictable political systems.

First, Washington rarely ‘gets it.' The United States could have worked with any of the Big Three as president. Yushchenko might have been a bit better from America's perspective, but his embrace of Washington in part reflects his increasing desperation as his political prospects have fallen. The potential benefit to America of favoring one political faction over another was always small.

Second, there's no guarantee of success. The United States ‘won' in Ukraine, but has lost badly in Pakistan, where it was allied to president Pervez Musharraf. As his standing with the Pakistani public plummeted, so did Washington's reputation. Even after his party was brutalized in parliamentary elections earlier this year, the Bush administration continued to lecture Pakistanis about why they should leave Musharraf in power. This futile blustering only highlighted Washington's loss of influence.

Third, even Washington's friends always will put their own political interests first. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was supposed to be the Bush administration's man in Baghdad. However, he torpedoed Washington's grand plans for a permanent, or at least long-term, military presence in Iraq. America found that its puppet had become an independent nationalist looking to his political future in a country liberated by American arms.

Fourth, intervening often triggers unexpected and costly consequences. Ostentatious U.S. backing for Yushchenko, as well as for Mikheil Saakashvili in Tbilisi, spurred Russian counter-efforts and increased Moscow's suspicion of U.S. policy in the Caucasus, Baltic region and Eastern Europe. Washington's claim that NATO expansion had nothing to do with Russia was met with understandable incredulity in Moscow. American political intervention in Russia's neighbors clearly contributed to Russia's brutal response to Georgia's attack on South Ossetia-Moscow was intent on teaching a lesson to the Bush administration as well as the Saakashvili government.

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