Accusing Vindman of Divided Loyalties Makes No Sense

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A host of commentators who support President Donald Trump have suggested that Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine expert on the National Security Council staff who has become a key witness in the impeachment proceedings, has split loyalties to the U.S. and Ukraine. It’s true that Vindman was born in Ukraine. Yet this argument makes so little common sense that perhaps unpicking it can start a broader discussion about the lingering suspicion of all immigrants as potentially disloyal citizens.

Vindman testified Tuesday that he’d been concerned about Trump’s insistence that Ukraine investigate the work of Hunter Biden, son of Democratic presidential contender Joseph Biden, while serving on the board of the Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma. He also said the company’s name came up in Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in July but didn’t appear in the rough transcript of that call that was released by the White House; nor did some other details he recalled.

Trump supporters then attacked Vindman as potentially loyal to Ukraine rather than the U.S. "It seems very clear that he is incredibly concerned about Ukrainian defense,” said Sean Duffy, a Republican former member of Congress and CNN contributor. “I don't know that he's concerned about American policy.” Fox News host Brian Kilmeade chimed in: “He tends to feel simpatico with the Ukraine.”  Another Fox News personality, Laura Ingraham, accused Vindman — who’d been asked by Ukrainians how to react to Trump’s investigation demands — of “advising Ukraine while working inside the White House, apparently against the president’s interest.” Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, tweeted this allegation: “A US gov. employee who has reportedly been advising two gov’s? No wonder he is confused and feels pressure.” 

The suspicions of Vindman fail to stand up on many levels, if not on the most obvious ones. That he’s a Purple Heart combat veteran doesn’t in itself make him immune from holding divided loyalties — such things have known to happen. Nor are the suspicions an anti-Semitic smear, although Vindman is Jewish: Anti-Semites tend to accuse Jews of being ultimately loyal to Israel, not to their countries of emigration.

Rather, the accusations don’t fit Vindman’s story or the political context. He was born in Ukraine in 1975, when it was part of the Soviet Union, and his family moved to the U.S. when he was four years old. Vindman grew up in a Brooklyn neighborhood known as “Little Odessa” or “Little Russia,” one of few areas in New York City carried by Trump in the 2016 election. This childhood probably helped his Russian, which he speaks like a native, but that neighborhood isn’t known as a breeding ground of Ukrainian patriotism.

More importantly, though, Vindman’s testimony didn’t do the Ukrainian government any favors. Zelenskiy needs a good relationship with the U.S., and has done his best to provide Trump with a defense. He would be happiest if the whole scandal were forgotten as soon as possible. Thus Vindman’s testimony hurt Zelenskiy’s interests. That doesn’t seem the action of a man who, in the hierarchy of his loyalties, puts Ukraine over the U.S.

The knee-jerk anti-immigrant reaction of the president’s supporters recalls Trump’s attack earlier this year on Democratic members of Congress with immigrant backgrounds. He said Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.” It also recalls the nasty experiences some Russian-Americans had during the Mueller investigation into interference into the 2016 election. This was understandable when you could read in the mainstream media accusations that the Kremlin was disguising payments to its emigre fifth column as Russian old age pensions.

The divided loyalties narrative is bipartisan. One could trace its lineage at least back to the internment of Japanese-Americans and the arrests of people of German and Italian origin as “enemy aliens” during World War II. 

The narrative, however, ignores the most fundamental fact about emigration.

“In departing home, the migrants vote with their feet, taking a step of quiet rebellion against the state of origin,” Roger Waldinger and Lauren Duquette-Rury from the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote in a study of immigrants’ political loyalties. “But because the emigrants are also immigrants, the decision to move to another country also often represents an implicit vote for that state.”

In immigrants, any country gets a resource of potentially fierce loyalty. These are uprooted people disappointed with their countries of birth and ready to believe in the new country of residence. With many Soviet emigres I know, that openness to acquiring a new identity was even greater after the Soviet Union fell apart: They officially weren’t from anywhere anymore, and the countries into which the Communist empire had split were no more than abstractions to a majority of them, brought up as “Soviet people” by their parents and the school system. 

The host country can embrace these newcomers and thus seal their loyalty in a way it doesn’t do with native-born citizens. Naturalization as U.S. citizens, the UCLA study found, is correlated with a loss of interest in country-of-birth politics and an increased affinity with the U.S. Pushing such people away — telling them to “go back where you came from,” treating them as second-class citizens because their names sound exotic or their skin is the wrong color, doubting their loyalty because it’s acquired rather than inherited — is potentially a self-fulfilling prophecy. Moreover, the doubts are the flip side of a sense that the U.S. isn’t living up to its ideal as a melting pot — a sense that immigrants have no reason to become U.S. patriots. 

But then, the whole idea of demanding undivided loyalty from citizens may be wrongheaded in the first place. Three-quarters of the world's countries now allow double citizenship, compared with about 40% in 1960. There’s a good reason for that: Countries don’t tend to go to war with each other as often as they did in the past, and people with affinity for two nations at once tend to strengthen ties between them and look for solutions that benefit both. In Europe, an Italian can work for the government of France because his loyalty lies with the idea of a borderless Europe. A Dane can serve as the mayor of a German city without changing his passport simply because locals like his ideas and management style.

The U.S. is in many ways an absolutist country — but I can’t help thinking that its foreign policy interests, at least, could be better served by people with divided loyalties, even with two passports in their pockets. If they were in charge of U.S. relationships with both allies and adversaries, these relationships could be more constructive, because they’d be based on a search for common ground. As things stand, there’s no room for flexibility, and someone like Vindman is forced to act in what he sees as the U.S. interest by taking a principled stand against Trump — even if it makes Ukraine more vulnerable.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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