Lessons from the Edge by Marie Yovanovitch

If not for Donald Fucking Trump, Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch would have had a long, distinguished and inspiring career serving the United States of America that nevertheless remained practically unknown outside the circles of her work. Perhaps she would have been best known for providing a crucial piece of local knowledge when the embassy in Mogadishu was being evacuated in 1991. Maybe her career highlight would have been working for the Moscow embassy when Boris Yeltsin confronted the remnants of the Soviet parliament in 1993, or later in that same assignment working with an all-star team (including legends of American diplomacy Bill Burns and Thomas Pickering) and having front-row seats for Yeltsin’s comeback re-election and the “loans for shares” scheme that cast the die for so much that followed in Russia. That’s a stint that included a few weeks helping to open America’s first diplomatic presence in Uzbekistan in April 1992. “Our makeshift embassy was in the former Communist Youth League building, where a bust of Lenin still presided in the first floor’s main hall. There was no setback, no wall, not even a Marine guard standing between Embassy Tashkent and the rest of the city. In fact, our small team of Americans took turns sleeping in the embassy to guard our communications equipment.” (p. 76) Any of those precautions would have been helpful when there’s a hostage situation soon after, one that Yovanovitch’s quick thinking keeps from escalating and eventually helps to defuse.

Lessons from the Edge by Marie Yovanovitch

If not for Donald Fucking Trump, the toughest battle that Yovanovitch might have faced in Ukraine was over whether the corrupt government of then–President Kuchma had supplied anti-aircraft weapons to Iraq, and her toughest moment before the US Congress might have been attempts to get her to say the word “genocide” in her confirmation hearings to become ambassador to Armenia in early 2008. (Whether or not the US government should characterize World War I era massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide was a policy decision to be taken by the president or the Secretary of State. Ambassadors implement policy; they don’t make it. Senators, Yovanovitch writes, “pushed me to break with the president’s policy and say the word ‘genocide.’ It wasn’t going to happen, and everyone knew it. It was pure Kabuki.” (p. 164))

It’s during her time in Armenia that Yovanovitch’s path comes closest to crossing mine. She arrived in Armenia a little more than a month after Russia invaded neighboring Georgia. I arrived in Georgia two weeks before the invasion, and when the Russians came fled to Armenia with three small children in tow, though we soon returned to Tbilisi. One of Yovanovitch’s major tasks in Armenia was facilitating a potential rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey, something that would have transformed the region’s relations and probably have prevented at least one war. Most of the talks took place in Tbilisi, and I was close enough to write about it at the time. As I read through Lessons from the Edge, I figured that I knew people who knew Yovanovitch, and indeed, when I mentioned the book to a friend who had lived in Armenia, they immediately said, “Masha? Oh yeah, she’s awesome.”

America’s Foreign Service has many Yovanovitches: smart, dedicated, brave, driven to make a positive difference in the world and for their country. She was born in Canada — making her an immigrant who gets the job done — to parents who by birth were half-Russian half-Serbian (her father) and half-Russian quarter-Dutch quarter-German (her mother). Her father served in World War II in the Yugoslav army, was captured by the Germans, escaped, and spent the remainder of the war among Russian émigrés in Paris. He was once interrogated by the Gestapo, but managed to get released. Her mother was born in Wiesbaden in the waning years of the Weimar Republic. The family’s background made it suspect in Nazi Germany, but they managed not to fall afoul of the regime. War made things worse. One time during the war, her mother literally had to run through a street on fire to make it back to her family. Liberation came in March 1945. “Mama recalled standing on the side of the road [in Wiesbaden] as an endless column of brightly painted American tanks roared by. Just like in the movies, the soldiers threw candy to the kids — and just like in the movies, Mama and her siblings eagerly caught the sweets. The entire family had survived the war. It was nothing short of a miracle.” (pp. 7–8) Yovanovitch’s parents made their separate ways to Montreal in the 1950s, where they met in the Orthodox church. An offer for her father to teach at a boarding school in Connecticut brought the young family to the United States.

Yovanovitch writes engagingly about her early years, and she does not hide the anxieties that came from growing up Orthodox in very WASPy Connecticut, and with a Russian name during some of the coldest years of the Cold War. Nor does she hide the sexism that she encountered in higher education and in many years of her work in the Foreign Service. In her first college class on European history, she winds up the only woman in the discussion group with a famous professor, “and at the first meeting Professor Blum declared that he had not been in favor of admitting women to Princeton — a comment I interpreted to mean that I was not welcome in his class.” Yovanovitch continues:

Six weeks later, after giving me an A on my midterm exam, Professor Blum called me into his office. He wanted to know why I didn’t speak in class. Finding my voice, I reminded him of what he had said at the first discussion group and explained that I had thought he didn’t want me in the class. I don’t recall an apology, but to his credit, in the second half of the semester, he made a point of including me in the discussion. … Perhaps most importantly, I learned that if I didn’t speak up for myself, it was unlikely that anyone else would. (p. 17)

Once in the Foreign Service, she aims for the political specialization but gets put into administration. For her first assignment, she selects Mogadishu because she had been told work there would feature both political and administrative aspects. Once assigned, she learns that the actual job will be all administration. In a court case, the State Department was found to be systematically discriminating against women Foreign Service officers by, among other things, consistently routing them into administrative positions that effectively precluded eventual promotion to senior ranks. Yovanovitch was both a beneficiary of the outcome of the lawsuit and someone whose experiences showed the need for more progress combating discrimination.

Another theme she introduces through an early encounter is corruption. She was a student at the same boarding school where her father taught.

In my senior year I channeled my inner Woodward and Bernstein for the school paper, writing an article about a small break-in at one of the dorms and commenting on the lax security and the need to address it. The headmaster found out about the story prior to publication and called me into his office. He never told me not to publish the piece, but he did observe that if the school put more money into security, they’d have to cut the teaching staff. I understood he was talking about my father, and I made the decision not to run the article. It was crushing. (p. 16)

In Somalia, corruption was so strong that soon after Yovanovitch’s time there ended, it swallowed the government entirely and the country collapsed into civil war for the next 20 years. Even today, it is only nominally unified and ranked next to last in Transparency International’s corruption perception index. Corruption and sexism joined forces to put Yovanovitch in no small danger: a nephew of the Somali president came to her office and aggressively asked her out. Some weeks later, he banged on her apartment door, drunk and persistent. “I lived on the top floor of a multistory apartment building in a secure, guarded compound that housed dozens of other Americans. For the nephew to get to my door, he had first to be admitted by the gate guard and then, even more troublingly, be told where I lived.” (p. 55)

Assignments in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia exposed her to many instances of corruption in high and low places, as well as the people fighting to make their countries less corrupt, often at considerable cost to themselves. As Yovanovitch writes in her prologue:

When leaders view their position in government as sinecures serving their personal interests rather than those of their constituents, it not only contravenes our values, it also goes against our interests, especially our long-term interests. Corrupt leaders are inherently untrustworthy as partners, and the loathing they engender at home almost inevitably leads to instability within — and sometimes beyond — their borders. (p. xxii)

Of course the reason that Yovanovitch wrote a book for the mass market instead of a memoir for foreign policy aficionados is that Donald Fucking Trump wanted a personal favor and bent as much of the apparatus of the US government as he could to get it. Plus he sent personal minions to try to work around the government and get what he wanted. In the end, what he got was impeached. Furthermore, Ukrainian president Zelenskyy wouldn’t bend for Putin’s errand-boy Trump, and the wisdom of that choice is shown by Ukraine’s continued existence as an independent country.

Yovanovitch’s account of what it’s like to be caught in the middle of such a storm is riveting, and chilling. Trump and his people are worse than you would expect, even if you think you have taken into account that people working closely with Trump are going to be worse than you would expect. Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State, comes across as gross, two-faced, and weak. The final third of Lessons from the Edge is all about Yovanovitch’s term as ambassador to Ukraine, the machinations of oligarchs and Trump, how she came to testify before Congress, and what the results were. In this review, I’ve concentrated on the rest of her career because it shows much of what American diplomacy can be, should be. Lessons from the Edge is a terrific memoir wrapped inside a gut-wrenching tale of corruption and warped priorities. Both are gripping stories, but only one is worthy of the dedicated, public-spirited person who wrote them.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/10/15/lessons-from-the-edge-by-marie-yovanovitch/

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