Let’s talk about July 26th, a lot of years later. You go to the front, you’re go to Donbas with Ambassador Volker, I believe, and you’re on the bridge and you’re looking over on the front line at the Russian soldiers. Is that what you recall?
And you said the commander there, the Ukrainian commander thanked you for the American military assistance that you knew was being withheld at that moment.
How’d that make you feel, sir?
Because it was clear that that commander counted on us. It was clear that that commander had confidence in us. It was clear that that commander had… was appreciative of the capabilities that he was given by that assistance, but also the reassurance that we were supporting him.
From Ambassador Bill Taylor’s impeachment testimony, Nov. 13, 2019
As is typical of the time warping effect of living here in Trumpspace, it’s hard to believe that the House impeachment hearings have only been going on for a week, not two years, and that there’s only been three witnesses over two hearings, not a hundred. Last up was fired Ukraine ambassador Marie Yavanovitch, whose appearance was punctuated by Trump’s simultaneous tweets – witness tampering live, on TV – which Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff was only too happy to read out loud as they were posted. Of course Donald, being Donald, couldn’t help but supply the Dems with an opportunity to contrast the incontinent ranting of the witless knave in the White House with the unimpeachable, and really quite moving testimony of the career professional whose reputation Donald dragged through the mud, augmenting his smears with the frankly unnerving promise that she was “about to go through some things”. Yavanovitch was so compelling, and so unassailably sympathetic, that even the slimy Republicans on the Committee found it beneath themselves to attack her, and sat there looking glum as the conclusion of her questioning was met with a spontaneous standing ovation from the gallery.
I wonder if that’s ever happened before.
Still, hers wasn’t the testimony that moved me the most. I was more affected by the earlier line of questioning quoted above, in which Bill Taylor, who replaced Yavanovitch in Kyiv, and likewise ran afoul of Trump’s back channel extortion of the new Ukrainian President, described a dispiriting visit to the front line at Donbas. It was a necessary reminder that the backdrop to Donald’s spectacularly unethical and unlawful abuse of power is a real shooting war, in which something over 11,000 Ukrainians have died defending their country against an incursion by a Russian surrogate army attempting to seize part of their country.
Taylor is the sort of real-life figure who doesn’t much look the part he’s played over the past few decades. By all appearances, sitting there with his tidy grey hair, adjusting his glasses, he seemed more likely to be a history professor at Harvard, or maybe somebody who teaches music at Juilliard. Hollywood would never cast anybody like him in the movie – George Clooney, maybe. James Garner, back in the day. As his testimony carried on, though, it was revealed that despite appearances, Bill Taylor was a former military officer who graduated fifth out of eight hundred at West Point (which, you may rest assured, requires first class brains), and decided upon graduation to turn down whatever staff positions they must have offered him in favour of commanding a rifle company of the 101st Airborne (which, you may likewise rest assured, is a position that demands world class mental and physical mettle). He commanded men in combat in Viet Nam, which means he saw things the like of which most of us wouldn’t deal with very well, and he won a Bronze Star, a Combat Infantry Badge, and, being a paratrooper who jumps out of airplanes, an Air Medal with a “V” – the “V” is for “valour”. All this before decades of various forms of public service, ending with being hand-picked as Mike Pompeo’s man in Kyiv, his credentials as an apolitical career diplomat wishing only to serve the US national interest being to that point unquestioned.
Such men don’t boast of their records, however full of heroics. They keep inside themselves, speak softly, and grow increasingly calm as things get increasingly dire. If Taylor felt contempt or disgust at the spineless GOP pipsqueaks who called his bona fides into question, he kept it to himself, as befit somebody who’s weathered a lot worse than the inept verbal barbs of idiots like Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan. Just the facts. That’s what you’ll get from Taylor.
His account of his visit to the front was thus related in just a few, characteristically spare and understated sentences, conveying information without overt emotion, and was thus to my ears all the more powerful. The Ukrainian officers he met, unaware of the crass hijinks of Sondland, Giuliani, Perry, and their sidekicks Lev and Igor, didn’t know, as Taylor did, that vital military assistance was then being unlawfully withheld. They were effusively grateful for the help they thought they were still getting. They greeted Taylor like a trusted, valued friend and ally. In no position, and certainly lacking the heart, to tell them the truth, Taylor felt “badly”, for which read sick in the pit of his stomach at the betrayal of brave soldiers who were counting on the United States to help them in their resistance to Russia’s naked aggression. Even as he stood there, men were dying. More would die, more than otherwise, if American aid didn’t flow. Those poor, trusting Ukrainians, who must have reminded Taylor of the men he once commanded, had no reason to suspect that America would let them down. Why? US and Ukrainian interests were so obviously aligned, even absent the obvious rights and wrongs of the situation on the ground in Donbas. The official, stated US foreign policy was a no-brainer.
Yet to Donald, the Ukrainians were just another expendable bunch fit to be thrown to the dogs as the whim struck him. Screw ’em if they wouldn’t give him what he wanted. Screw ’em anyway, on general principles, and on the apparently compelling basis that giving them the shaft would please Vlad. Nobody exists except to serve Trump, and Trump’s personal agenda. Nobody matters. The Kurds could go hang, and so could those hapless bastards in Eastern Europe, if they wouldn’t play ball.
No word of exaggeration: this is incredibly corrosive to US standing in the international community, and to the strategic interests of the entire western world.
In geopolitics, raw military capability is just a facet of national power, and not the key facet. Far more important are reputation, credibility, and adherence to consistent policy in pursuit of a consistent set of articulated national interests and avowed principles. No nation, certainly not America, has a spotless record on this score, but over the decades from 1945 until Trump assumed office, there were certain things for which the United States could always be relied upon, and this was the key to the “soft power” that gave America its edge in international affairs. Yes, the Soviets were once mighty in some ways, as the Chinese now bid fair to be, but powers like those always start from behind the 8-ball because nobody really trusts, or really wants to be like, them and their kind. It flows naturally that nobody wants to consume their culture, emulate their modes of government, or adopt their ideals. In the result, nobody – and this is no small thing – wants to watch their movies, binge their TV series, wear their styles, listen to their music, or drive their cars – they have little to sell but weapons, and they have their uses, but they’ll never be trusted allies, not really. Nobody wants to risk being ground under their boot heels. Nobody wants to rely on them. When they throw their weight around, nations aspiring to a better way of life have always sought America to provide counter-pressure.
By providing it, by being a reliable security partner, year after year, America opened hearts and minds to the entire tapestry of ideas and attitudes that shaped a whole world order into something more amenable to our preferred culture and values. There were failures and cynical betrayals of principle, sure enough. Friendly dictatorships were coddled. Unfriendly regimes were undermined despite being democratically elected. Foolish, immoral wars of choice were fought. No dispute. Yet there were core values. There were lines the crossing of which was unthinkable. Despite everything, there was much to be said for the world order fostered by American power and decades of bipartisan consensus, if not for everybody, then certainly for those of us comfortably ensconced within the western alliance system.
This is the international status quo that Trump has destroyed. Under Donald, America has become just another great power, without the scruples, or the reliability, to stand behind anybody except in a temporary, transactional sort of way that counts for nothing, long term. All around the world, Trump has articulated his festering philosophy of “America first”, which means, essentially, “y’all can go fuck y’all”, and nobody, neither aligned peoples in dire need like the Kurds and Ukrainians, nor America’s oldest, most stalwart allies in Europe, Asia, and North America, can count on the United States for much of anything any longer. Why enter into an arms treaty, or climate accord, or even trade treaty with America? They’ll just break it when it suits them, maybe sooner rather than later. Why join a military alliance? Any support is liable to be withdrawn at the drop of a hat.
It’s at the point that French president Macron is musing in public that NATO – NATO, for the love of Christ – is pretty much dead, and Europe has to think about what it means to go it alone, a sentiment that his allies wish he wouldn’t express out loud, but one which they all share, and which some, including Germany’s Merkel, have more or less given voice to themselves over the past three years. This general erosion of confidence can only spread, and lead to a corresponding loss of interest in American culture, ideals, and supposed principles – to the evaporation of all that soft power. It’s the way of things. Americana seems a lot less alluring when America itself is just another unprincipled bully looking out for nobody and nothing but itself, incapable of even enlightened self interest. What’s being squandered is the precious perception that the US must be on to something, that American ideas obviously produce a better way of living and behaving on the world stage, and that the American camp is plainly the better one to join. Those guys? The ones who cut old friends off at the knees? What’s so special about them, or anything they think or do? Meanwhile, as the world turns away from America, Trump’s America, mean-spirited, suspicious, scornful and insular, increasingly turns its back to the world, to the lasting detriment of all concerned.
Those looking forward to 2020, and Trump’s possible – stress, I’m afraid, possible – removal from office then, or maybe even beforehand, anticipate a return to normal, and a restoration of America’s standing in the world. Sadly, it isn’t as simple as all that. Trump may go, but America has proven itself capable of being duped into electing his sort of authoritarian demagogue. Maybe the next President will try to right US policy, but what about after that? Who knows what sort of malicious moron the obviously very ill US body politic will cough up next? Who dares risk making the sort of commitments, and entering into the sort of treaties and alliances, that need to last decades to be of any use? America isn’t a safe bet any more. Donald has proved that his nation will happily pull the rug out from under anybody, no matter the long term consequences, merely to serve narrow, transitory, corrupt and purely transactional concerns, even the personal business and financial prosperity of the whoever sits in the Oval, and even at the expense of vital US national interests. If the trust of the international community is to be regained, it’ll take more than unseating Donald and putting somebody more sensible in his chair for a couple of years. It could take decades. It might never happen.
That’s the real pity of it. That’s the world of meaning behind Bill Taylor’s laconic account of feeling “badly”. It’s not just about Ukraine. It’s about the entire post-war rules-based liberal world order, it’s about the legacy of Roosevelt, Truman, Marshall, Acheson, Clifford, Kennan, and the many similarly motivated public servants who followed in their footsteps and maintained what they’d built, decade after decade. All of that may already be ruined beyond repair.
And it only took about 36 months.