Corruption a common thread in the rise of extremism

Walter Pincus
Reporter May 12

President Obama needs dependable leaders in the countries he is trying to help for U.S. foreign policy goals to make progress. Those leaders, more than Obama, will determine whether U.S. policy succeeds.

Before turning to Ukraine, let’s look at the men who the president has had to deal with up to now.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. View Archive

In Iraq, it’s been Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who came into power in 2006 during the Bush administration and has been using his authority to destroy the opposition and perpetuate his time in office while ignoring U.S. advice to compromise with the country’s Sunni and Kurdish elements. As a result, there is renewed violence and a return of ­
al-Qaeda-associated Sunni insurgents.

In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai, another holdover from the Bush era, has publicly turned against U.S. military forces, condemning them for killing and wounding Afghan civilians. And he has privately hinted that Americans have aided the Taliban opposition to his government. More directly, he has refused to sign the security agreement that would govern U.S. and allied troops remaining in the country after he leaves office. The unhappiness is mutual, as illustrated in former defense secretary Robert Gates’s recent memoir, where it is written that Obama “can’t stand Karzai.”

In Egypt, Obama had to deal first with President Hosni Mubarak at a time when his almost 30-year dictatorial rule was ending. Obama supported the popularly elected Mohamed Morsi until the collapse of his inept Muslim Brotherhood administration. Now, there could be further complications for U.S. support if former military chief Abdel Fatah al-Sissi wins the presidency in the May 26-27 election and follows through on his pledge to finish off the Muslim Brotherhood and its allied groups.

In Libya, U.S. forces along with NATO elements aided the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi almost three years ago. But Libya’s central government remains in turmoil with its elected parliament seemingly unable to act because of political rivalries. Meanwhile, with no firm leadership in Tripoli, armed militias control various parts of the country.

In Syria, the United States has had trouble identifying and aiding groups with aims it supports because the opposition to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad includes al-Qaeda-linked terrorists from Iraq and elsewhere. Since the insurgents at times fight one another, there has been delays in providing military training and arms to any rebel units.

Most recently, attention has focused on Nigeria and the Boko Haram terrorist kidnapping of nearly 300 girls from their secondary school on April 14 in the northern part of the country. More than 250 of the girls are believed to remain in captivity. It took Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan three weeks before he publicly acknowledged the abductions and shortly thereafter agreed to American aid in searching for the girls.

There is one common thread running through this set of tarnished leaders Obama has been dealing with: corruption within their governments.

Sarah Chayes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has been studying the correlation between public corruption and the rise of militant extremism. “Nearly every country facing an extremist insurgency, from Nigeria to Afghanistan . . . is run by a kleptocratic clique,” she wrote March 27 in a Los Angeles Times op-ed.

In February, Jonathan fired Nigeria’s central bank governor, who had complained that at least $20 billion in oil revenue owed to the country’s treasury was missing. “Most of the missing billions are believed to have been diverted to the pockets of the president and his cronies — with the help of the oil minister, who keeps the accounts,” Chayes wrote.

Broadening her thesis, Chayes said: “And almost every popular revolt aimed at toppling a government in recent years, from the Arab uprisings to Ukraine’s revolution, began as a protest against acute corruption.”

A 2011 survey taken by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems found that more than nine in 10 Ukrainians believe corruption is common in Ukraine, and that most have had experience with corruption within the past year. It goes far beyond the police, the courts and elected officials. In Ukraine, you have to pay extra in health clinics, elementary schools — even to guarantee your welfare or housing payments.

Every political candidate going back to the Orange Revolution in 2004 has pledged to end corruption, including Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych, the recently ousted pro-Russian president who was elected in 2010. In June 2012, he signed a new law to combat corruption, but two months later he signed a law that ended competitive bidding on state-owned company contracts, paving the way for fraud.

On Thursday, Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European affairs, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the transitional government had passed the “first real anti-corruption legislation that we’ve seen in Ukraine through all of these years.”

We have heard that before.

With Ukraine’s presidential election just 12 days off, the favorite appears to be Petro Poroshenko, 48, a billionaire who for 16 years has been in and out of government. He has become one of Ukraine’s 10 richest men with a holding company that includes the country’s main chocolate factories, plants building cars and ships and the TV channel that played a prime role in covering the protests that ousted Yanukovych.

In an April 25 interview with The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth, Poroshenko said: “A challenge for Ukraine’s future” is “about the modernization of the country, the problem of reforming it, about having zero tolerance to corruption and the association agreement with the European Union.”

Sounds good, but let’s recall a memorable 1969 crack from Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell: “Watch what we do instead of what we say.”

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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