Lessons from the Impeachment Inquiry

Co-authored with Yusuf Buluc (*)

November 23, 2019

As the US House Intelligence Committee continued with its impeachment hearings, NATO foreign ministers met in Brussels in preparation for the summit which will take place on December 3-4 in London to mark NATO’s 70th anniversary.

Following the Brussels meeting NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, “We had excellent discussions and we all agree that NATO remains indispensable for our security.  And that despite our differences, we are stronger as we face the future together.”

The NATO Secretary General is the Alliance’s highly respected top international civil servant and he is duty bound to underline the importance of the Alliance and solidarity among its members. Unfortunately, however, NATO is not only faced with external challenges but also with skepticism from within.

NATO’s biggest challenge is the foreign and security policy disarray in Washington as reflected in problems in transatlantic relations, US withdrawal from the JCPOA, maximum pressure policy towards Iran, policy towards North Korea, Middle East peace, Syria and now Ukraine to give a few examples.

Understandably, formulation of foreign policy is always a greater challenge in a democracy than in a country under authoritarian rule. But the current picture in Washington seems to go beyond that. There are problems with decision-making, distribution of authority, assignment of responsibilities, high rate of turnover among senior officials and weakening of traditional institutions.

President Trump may have valid points with regard to defense spending by NATO allies or trade tariffs but his being a self-centered and erratic leader who wants to govern the US like his business complicates everything and undermines US and Western interests. Nonetheless, despite his overbearing exercise of executive powers, the counterbalancing institutions of the American constitution are still functioning. Thus, while Mr. Trump’s impeachment is not a foregone conclusion, certain lessons may already be drawn.

In contrast with disarray in Washington, an assertive Russian leadership has a very coherent, focused and result-oriented foreign policy. Yes, they are enjoying the absence of strong democratic institutions and constitutional scrutiny, but their formulation and conduct of foreign policy go far beyond that. Their relationship with China is steady. Annexation of Crimea is irreversible. With no history of military interventions, Moscow is now opening new avenues of cooperation with Middle East countries. Yes, Russia intervened in Syria but Moscow has successfully argued that this was upon the invitation of the legitimate government and now even the West would prefer President Assad’s rule to a jihadist takeover. And, Russia seems to be remarkably successful in deepening the rift between Turkey and the West.

China, another global power, has a non-interventionist, cool-minded and interest-oriented foreign policy prioritizing non-involvement in others’ conflicts.

The Ukraine dimension of the impeachment inquiry has so far been the most revealing foreign policy failure of the Trump presidency. Here we have an eastern European country whose principal problem is fighting corruption even before facing continuing Russian pressure. A newcomer to politics, Mr. Zelensky has successfully risen against the corruption which flourished under the rule of the so-called oligarchs. In April he was elected president in a landslide victory. July 21 snap parliamentary elections were also an overwhelming win for his Servant of the People party. He inspired hope.

President Zelensky regarded continuing US support as vital to solving Ukraine’s problems. And, believing that a visit to the White House would demonstrate that, he wanted it to take place soon, before he met President Putin. Now, he is characterized as someone who is prepared to do “anything Mr. Trump asks him”. By whom is he characterized as such? By Ambassador Sondland, US ambassador to the European Union. How did Mr. Sondland get there? By paying a million dollars to the Trump inauguration. Amid all the confusion, this much is clear: this whole episode has negatively impacted Mr. Zelensky’s standing.

A few Ukrainians may have expressed a preference for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump for president. However, this could not possibly add up to election meddling. Assuming it did, the president of the US, supposedly holding moral high ground, could eliminate the problem by generously supporting Mr. Zelensky without even mentioning his doubts as to what happened in the 2016 election. As the French say, “noblesse oblige”.

We have watched the hearing where Ambassador Sondland bragged about talking to foreign heads of state and government as part of his daily routine; talking to President Trump in “colorful language” only to admit later that the two are not friends. What does his testimony say about him and the President?

A few days ago, the Kremlin mentioned the possibility of a one-on-one meeting between Russian Presidents Putin and Zelensky in Paris, before a Normandy format summit scheduled for December 9. Who can possibly say that the impeachment inquiry would not undermine the latter’s position at this summit? Is this how Washington must support Ukraine?

Formulation and conduct of foreign policy in total disregard for constitutional imperatives and channels not only renders the exercise illegitimate but likely imperils national security and unity. Such an exercise will at a minimum overshadow national interest, prioritize political self-interests of the leadership and dangerously create a grey area as it will blur the demarcation between domestic and foreign policy.

The impeachment inquiry has illustrated that ad hoc arrangements put together primarily to serve “ruler’s interests” can clash with the functions and work of constitutionally mandated officials, resulting in undermining the latter’s credibility and thereby that of the state. President Trump’s personal lawyer Mr. Giuliani’s interventions have done much damage to pre-defined and congressionally sanctioned strategic goals of US foreign policy. And, repairing the damage will inevitably become the responsibility of those sidelined officials.

The congressional hearings have also revealed, not coincidentally, that career professionals, the “mon cher” category officials, are incomparably dedicated to the interests of the state, more honest and consistent in their testimonies and brave in their submissions even under the risk of damaging their career prospects.

Turkey’s rulers, members of parliament, politicians need to pay attention to what is unfolding in Washington and draw the right conclusions. Because, leaving the US-Turkey relationship only in the hands of Mr. Trump, disregarding other centers of power, excluding the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs from the policy and decision-making process and disregarding its professional/institutional advice has only led us to the dead end where we now find ourselves. Perhaps, they also need to remember how their use of “back-channels” prior to the invasion of Iraq backfired leading to deep resentment in Washington. Finally, they need to see, as the congressional process reveals, that there is no free lunch at the Oval Office. If one wants to be seen breaking bread with Mr. Trump one has to pay a price.

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(*) Yusuf Buluc is a retired Turkish Ambassador and a former Head of NATO’s Department of Defense Plans and Policy.

 

 

 

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