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Corruption a common thread in extremism's rise

| Saturday, May 17, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

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 just two of the men who the president has had to deal with up to now.

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-Qaida-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.

There is one common thread running through these 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 ... is run by a kleptocratic clique,” she wrote in a Los Angeles Times commentary.

“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 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 ahead, 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 vehicles 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.”

Walter Pincus is a national security reporter for The Washington Post.

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