James Foley

James Foley

On Ukraine, We Could All Use a Bit of ‘Whataboutery’

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James Foley explores the bizarre double standards in our discussion of foreign policy, and argues we should reject calls for us to suspend criticism during war.

It was naïve, in retrospect, to believe that decades of American imperial quagmire had permanently imprinted war-weariness on the Western psyche. Evidence to the contrary is all around us. Atlantic liberals have learned nothing from America’s disastrous “interventions” in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq. More worrying, from humanity’s perspective, is that Vladimir Putin paid no attention either. Like so many Nato leaders before him, Putin is drifting into an occupying a country where he doesn’t belong and which he can never hope to pacify. The snarling Russian strongman is aligned with his gurning liberal enemies in refusing to learn from history.

History makes a mockery of pious agreements among the commentariat. This may explain why commentators always – without exception – deny the relevance of historical context in wartime situations. It is always the case that this enemy is more evil, more cunning, and more inexplicable than the last guy: this guy is truly the worst since Hitler. It is hard to find any exceptions to this rule. Even during the contested Iraq War, anyone wishing to gain mainstream legitimacy as a critic of the war had to play the game of admitting that Saddam was truly the wickedest force since the Nazis, that he was assembling an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, that he might threaten the West within forty-five minutes.

There are other dull regularities in the build-up to war. The prevailing narrative is always that anti-war critics are either collaborating with the enemy for profit or else operating for free as the enemy’s useful idiot. Last time, these slurs were aimed at everyone from George Michael to the Dixie Chicks. This time it ranges from Jeremy Corbyn and Glenn Greenwald to the Democratic Socialists of America and the Rail Maritime and Transport (RMT) trade union.

Pedantic historical detail tells a different story. In truth, the politicians most eager to escalate this war are those who cosied up to Putin during his worst atrocities. Tony Blair is the openly acknowledged precursor to Keir Starmer’s Labour leadership (although it should be admitted that Blair, relative to his successor, was more tolerant of anti-war dissent). Blair, basking in the humanitarian aura of his “interventions” in the former Yugoslavia, championed Putin’s election despite everything we knew about the Second Chechen War, a campaign replete with war crimes (far more, thus far, than Ukraine), with a death toll that ranges as high as 250,000. Yet, as a Guardian report observed, Blair’s government took “the view that Mr Putin is a convinced ‘westerniser’, bent on making Russia more attractive to western – and British – investment.” The report continued:

The Tories were surprised that the prime minister accepted what aides called a “Saturday night with the Putins” so close to Russia’s crucial election, although they were aware that the former prime ministers John Major and Margaret Thatcher were also keen to be friendly to rising Kremlin stars.

Blair’s apologias for Putin continued well into 2014, during which time Peter Mandelson was also profiting handsomely from Kremlin links. And there was nothing exceptional in New Labour’s courtship of Putin, which merely reflected the British state’s four-pronged approach to Russia. Firstly, the “shock therapy” barrage of privatisations, which produced both the biggest peacetime collapse in economic history, and the now notorious class of “Russian oligarchs”. Secondly, the deliberate exclusion and isolation of the successor Russian state from Western capitalist institutions like Nato and the EU. Thirdly, the expansion of those institutions towards post-Soviet satellite states, in a deliberate effort to encircle Russia. Fourthly, the courting of Putin as a Westernising strongman and loyal outpost of Christian civilisation, even as he conducted the worst atrocities of his presidency. “The West believes Russia is using disproportionate force and killing civilians in its campaign against Chechen separatists,” noted a BBC report of the time. “But Western leaders have been anxious to temper their criticism to avoid alienating the new Russian leader.”

The only consistent opponents of the above were the much-demonised anti-war left. “When the Prime Minister [Blair] travels to Moscow,” said Jeremy Corbyn, back in 2001, “I hope he will convey the condemnation of millions of people around the world of the Russian army in Chechnya”. After 9/11, Tariq Ali observed, “to accept that the appalling deaths of 3,000 people in the USA are more morally abhorrent than the 20,000 lives destroyed by Putin when he razed Grozny…is obscene”. And so on. By contrast, Blair was praising Putin’s “focused view of what he wants to achieve in Russia”. EU leaders Javier Solana and Romano Prodi likewise greeted Putin’s election in favourable terms. The neoconservative Bush administration would turn a blind eye to ongoing atrocities in the higher cause of the War on Terror, where Putin was an ally.

In summary, when Putin committed his greatest atrocities, Western liberal democrats were either cheering him on, offering private succour or simply ignoring him; the much derided “anti-imperialist left” often occupied a lonely vigil of anti-Putin critique.

There are parallels here with Saddam Hussein. Hussein, like Putin, was treated by Western powers as a reliably brutal ally and economic partner when he committed his greatest crimes, including the infamous use of poison gas. Britain was covertly selling weapons to Iraq throughout the brutal eight-year war with Iran. After Hussein invaded Kuwait, a flagrant violation of sovereignty albeit nothing on his behaviour in the Iran-Iraq War, Margaret Thatcher complained that he was “acting like Hitler”, and a Putin-style switcheroo occurred. The anti-war left, those who had condemned arms sales to Iraq, were condemned as collaborators with the regime. As they were in 2003, and it’s not an isolated case. The anti-war left have been “useful idiots” for Osama Bin Laden, too, and Yasser Arafat, and Arafat’s enemies, Hamas, and Colonel Gadaffi, and the leaders of anywhere else the Western alliance deigned to bomb.

To pre-empt some bad faith arguments, I am not an uncritical cheerleader for the Western anti-war movement. Indeed, previously I have made two direct criticisms of pacifist politics. Firstly, some parts of the movement can be guilty of infantilising opponents of the West, in denying them agency or (conversely) moral culpability. Where this happens, it stems from a mixture of Western idealism, of the Fern Gully/Avatar variety, or conversely from a juvenile second-campism: the enemy of my enemy. Nobody of any significance on the Western left, to my knowledge, has defended Putin’s invasion (talk of a “pro-Putin left” is thus the calling card of propagandists). But have some used the question of Nato to muddy the water on Putin’s culpability? And does this deny Russia’s sub-imperialism its own agency in world affairs? Perhaps, and if so, I’m not endorsing it.

But, secondly, I have also criticised the anti-war movement for conceding too much to Western liberal hypocrisies. As I wrote elsewhere, the slogan “no blood for oil”, a mobilising tool around the Iraq War, implies the possibility of a “good” violation of sovereignty. This was arguably a sop to liberals with their nostalgia for recent history, most especially their uncritical enthusiasm for the Kosovo intervention. More thoughtful accounts might recognise that Iraq was not merely the product of “Halliburton takeover” of the American state – as imagined in popular accounts, such as Adam McKay’s film Vice – but also a product of the glib End of History moralism that licensed earlier efforts at “regime change”. In other words, it should have required self-examination on behalf of the liberal-left, just as much as the neoconservative right. As Perry Anderson notes:

In reality, the front of opinion that pressed for an assault on Iraq was far broader than a particular Republican faction. It included many a liberal and Democrat…There was no illogic in that. The Democrats’ war in the Balkans, dismissing national sovereignty as an anachronism, was the immediate condition and proving ground of the Republicans’ war in Mesopotamia…The operations of what Fukuyama at one point allows himself, in a rare lapsus, to call the “American overseas empire” have historically been bipartisan, and continue to be so.

Whether you agree with my assessment, or Anderson’s, I am not above criticising the anti-war movement. Having said this: the Stop the War Coalition (StWC) has been right, right and right again in its pessimistic predictions about Western interference. Pro-war liberals have been wrong, wrong and wrong again. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that StWC, Jeremy Corbyn and intellectuals like John Mearsheimer, the greatest International Relations scholar of our generation, are being victimised, not for their errors or their culpability in atrocities, but for the accuracy of their predictions.

The Sin of Whataboutery

The greatest sins one can commit, according to the prevailing consensus, are, firstly, to engage in “whataboutery”; and, secondly, to make the Ukraine question about Nato. So broad is the consensus that both points deserve consideration in turn.

“Whataboutery” is widely seen as the most unconscionable logical error, most especially when applied to questions of war. Labour MP Ian Murray, for instance, argues we must approach Putin’s aggression with “no excuses and no whataboutery”. Murray is hardly alone here, yet the logical offence of whataboutery is considered so grave that even the Russian leader’s supposed apologists are intent on stamping it out, with Alex Salmond writing, “The wrong thing to do is to engage in puerile whataboutery of how the coffers of the Tory party have been filled with oligarch money, of how Labour MPs were forced to withdraw a motion criticising Nato, or how the SNP now sound more neo-con than the neo-cons or, for that matter, Reuben Duffy’s clumsy attempt at a hatchet job on Alba.” Whataboutery is thus greeted with an all-but unanimous chorus of disapproval.

Critical thinkers should always be alert to any such resounding consensus. It is usually a sure sign of ideological mystification. And it is little surprise to find that the term “whataboutery” originates in the propaganda battles of the Cold War. As Steven Pinker observes, “It was a favorite of the apologists for the Soviet Union in the twentieth century, who presented the following defense of its totalitarian repression: ‘What about the way the United States treats its Negroes?’”

Precisely in Pinker’s framing, there is a clue that illustrates the double-edged nature of “whataboutery”. Throughout the Cold War, American leaders refused to address segregation and its aftermath, partly for fear of confronting the contradictions of US imperial claims to stand for “the free world”. Euro-Atlantic liberals likewise refused to address the American racial order, and it took until 2020 for a sea change in attitudes to come, with the intensity of #BLM sentiment only serving to highlight the hypocrisy in the preceding decades of liberal hegemony. America’s racism does not excuse the crimes of the Soviet Union. But the charge of “whataboutery” was an effective means of silencing critics of American racism as apologists for “the enemy”.

The buzzword itself is thus part of the armoury of Western ideological deflection tactics. The word functions more as an imperative command, that difficult questions about our own states are prohibited until the war is concluded. Given that the War on Terror lasted a generation, and the Cold War more than one, difficult questions can be postponed almost indefinitely. Liberals are generally happy to play along. The only surprise is how little has changed given the apparent openness of the social media public square.

The term “whataboutery” is thus a hypocrites’ charter unless we specify its limits. Whataboutery is wrong, says Peter Hitchens, in a rare critical account of the term’s usage, when it involves the false equivalence of opposites. He illustrates this by suggesting it would be false to equate America’s racial segregation with Soviet forced labour camps; but whether or not anyone agrees with Hitchens, the point is that false equivalences should be discouraged.

Equally, it is legitimate to challenge the false opposition of equivalents: pretending that situations are radically different when really they are similar. The Western alliance, sometimes under the umbrella of Nato leadership, repeatedly violates international legal norms and pursues a revisionist approach to states and their borders. Indeed, those who spelled out the intellectual rationale for regime change are the biggest enthusiasts for escalation with Putin. They are protected from the consequences of their actions because international politics is lawless anarchy and operates by principles of victors’ justice.

Hypocrisy is easily detected. But under certain circumstances, the question of hypocrisy matters not just in moral terms, but also in assessing the logical foundations of arguments. Take the question of Putin and Ukraine. A common refrain, the foundation of many leftist arguments, is that one must defend the principle of sovereignty and the right of self-determination. In pointing out, for example, that our leaders had no such concern when faced with the Nato-led invasions in Afghanistan and Libya and expressed no parallel outrage over the Saudi Arabian atrocities in Yemen, one is not simply taking a cheap shot to deflect from the issue. These examples are crucial in eliciting the real foundation of your interlocutor’s argument.

What these “whatabouts” establish is that sovereignty and self-determination, in the abstract, are not the issues at stake. Their true point of principle is therefore something different and more specific. As I understand it, what liberals are really defending is the right of the Ukrainian government to join Nato. When that point is articulated fully, my own disagreements are clear. Firstly, Nato expansionism is an ultimate – if not the proximate – cause of support for Putin’s Russian nationalism. Secondly, Nato membership would inflame majority-minority tensions inside Ukraine and hasten its fragmentation, hence its loss of sovereignty. Thirdly, it would add to the drumbeat of war between nuclear-armed powers possessing upwards of 90 percent of the world’s warheads. Others are welcome to disagree, but these are my specific objections to their actual argument.

“Whatabouts”, in that sense, help free arguments from a loaded and tendentious framing. When Cold War Western journalists complained of Fidel Castro’s abuses in Cuba, the emotive power of their true argument rested on a framing of themselves and the West as crusaders for democracy. It was therefore legitimate to ask, “what about” the School of the Americas, General Pinochet and Nicaragua’s Contras: Noam Chomsky called this the method of “paired examples”. Naturally, parallel atrocities by Western allies received nothing remotely close to parallel outrage. What we can establish, therefore, is that Cold War apoplexy about Castro was not founded in abstract concern for democracy or human rights, any more than liberal concern for Ukraine is founded in abstract respect for sovereignty.

Practical Whataboutery: “Making this about Nato”

As I said, in the early stages of war there is an allergic reaction to history and context. Any such talk is condemned as traitorous, in all wars. That background is only filled in later when the war’s outcome has been determined, by which time it is too late.

Yet, at the risk of screaming into an empty void, this conflict is clearly “about” Nato in four ways. Firstly, Nato (and the broader Western alliance) has been central to rationalising the breakdown of principles of national sovereignty and any limited notion of international law. This began with the (arguably illegal) bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999: in that case, liberal public opinion turned a blind eye on the consequentialist grounds of humanitarian intervention, ignoring, in familiar fashion, the hypocrisy of Blair using his anti-Milosevic “humanitarian” credentials to rehabilitate Putin and a host of other butchers. “Post-sovereignty” humanitarian enthusiasm served to vindicate future “interventions”, such as Afghanistan and Libya, which had unambiguously disastrous outcomes.

More to the point, they served as toolkits for Putin. As Phillip Cunliffe observes: “Putin’s interventions in Georgia and Ukraine are expertly engineered to outrage liberal opinion by exploiting Western precedents and cosily nestling in the interstices of Western hypocrisy”. Western talking points have thus been repurposed for Putin’s aims: pre-emptive retaliation, counterinsurgency, anti-terrorism, even anti-fascism. Of course, Putin’s pretexts are no less absurd than those of his Western forerunners.

Secondly, Nato is the real matter of principle at stake here. To claim that this is about “national sovereignty” in the abstract begs many a question. The loudest enthusiasts for this war have never shown any propensity to defend national sovereignty when it was threatened in Yemen, Libya or Afghanistan; or when the US supported and bankrolled the overthrow of democratically elected leaders in Haiti, Honduras, Egypt and Venezuela; or over Catalonia for that matter.

As above, their true demand is that Ukraine should be allowed to join Nato on principle, even if nobody ever expected that to happen in practice. Ukrainian leaders may have believed that they would one day join Nato, and that the US/European forces would defend that militarily. If so, the West was deluding them, with tragic consequences, treating them as geopolitical forfeits, rather as they have always treated the Kurds. Prospective Ukrainian membership was always a pawn in a wider game with Russia. It was never a serious offer. And yet this unserious offer has become the central controversy, which reflects as badly on Western liberals as it does on Putin.

Thirdly, far from this being an act of capriciousness, Putin has threatened war for decades, consistently, on precisely the question of Nato expansion. Security experts have predicted that Nato expansionism would have exactly this outcome, not just throughout Putin’s reign, but before it too.

For the purposes of argument, we can ignore those bothersome realist International Relations scholars and treacherous anti-war leftists and consider only the most impeccably credentialed Atlantic liberals. To take just a sample, here is George Kennan in 1998: “I think [Nato expansion] is the beginning of a new Cold War…I think it is a tragic mistake…Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the Nato expanders] will say that we always told you this is how the Russians are…”. And CIA director William Burns in 2008: “Ukrainian entry into Nato is the brightest of all red lines for the Russian elite (not just Putin)…[it would] create fertile soil for Russian meddling in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine”. The list of “serious” voices warning of this danger could be extended further.

Putin has always stated the centrality of Nato and has fought wars on this issue before. His actions are a brutal violation of the UN Charter – but to act as if nobody was warned is (forgive this much abused term) to spread misinformation.

Fourthly, any peaceful solution to this conflict will require compromise over the Nato membership that Western powers had no serious intention of enacting in the first place. The danger is that liberal frenzy poisons the well against inevitable compromises, with Western leaders, fearing a (social) media backlash, hamstrung in negotiations. Arguably the most dangerous force in this conflict, Putin aside, is the hysteria, hypocrisy and historical blindness of the highly online commentariat, most especially its liberal wing. The gratifications of Western liberals who believe the conflict is about them could easily hasten a war between nuclear powers. A scary thought indeed.

Putin holds absolute accountability for an illegal and immoral violation of sovereignty. And those who have consistently defended national sovereignty have the greatest right to make this indictment. But banning Dostoyevsky or Orlov the meerkat or Friedrich Engels the German is only going to burnish Russian nationalism for the benefit of satisfying a narcissistic craving to be seen “doing something”. What we can control is our own leaderships: and our own fragile emotions, inflamed, as always, by hyper-online status competition.

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