John Kerry speaks about the situation in Crimea during a town hall meeting with university students at the State Department in Washington on 18 March. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

For our most powerful and hypocritical leaders, crimes are those that others commit

There is egregious hypocrisy and unctuous sanctimony at the heart of western foreign policy.

Is there a better case study in brazen hypocrisy than the ongoing crisis in Crimea? Not just on the part of the loathsome Vladimir Putin, who defends Syria’s sovereignty while happily violating Ukraine’s, but on the part of western governments, too.

Where to begin? Speaking at the US embassy in Kyiv on 4 March, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters “how incredibly moving” it had been to “pay my respects . . . at the site of last month’s deadly shootings”. He extended his condolences to people who “battled against snipers on rooftops”. What they stood for, Kerry continued, “will never be stolen by bullets . . . It’s universal, it’s unmistakable, and it’s called freedom.”

Unmistakable? Universal? Nice try, John. On 14 August 2013, at the Rabaa al-Adawiya square in Cairo, Egyptian security forces attacked a sit-in by Muslim Brotherhood members which had begun in July after the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Brotherhood. As in Kyiv, snipers on rooftops fired on the crowds below. More than 900 protesters were killed that day, in what Human Rights Watch called the “most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history”.

And Kerry’s response? He went through the motions of a condemnation, describing the violence as “deplorable”. Yet just three months later, on a visit to Cairo, he restated his view that the generals in Egypt were intent on “restoring democracy” and were “working very, very hard” to do so. There was no rousing rhetorical tribute to the brave Egyptians who had battled against snipers; no trip to Rabaa al-Adawiya to pay respects to the dead. The message was clear: our concern for the dead is shamelessly selective. So, too, is our outrage.

When Viktor Yanukovych, the president of Ukraine and an ally of Putin, oversees the killing of at least 70 protesters in Kyiv, he is deemed a criminal and a tyrant. When General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, head of Egypt’s military junta and ally of the west, oversees the killing of 900 protesters, he is “restoring democracy”.

Then there is the rather hysterical, if self-parodying, response to Russia’s invasion of Crimea from Kerry and his British counterpart, William Hague. “You just don’t invade another country on phoney pretexts in order to assert your interests,” pronounced the US secretary of state. “The world cannot say it’s OK to violate the sovereignty of another nation in this way,” declaimed the Foreign Secretary.

Really? Do these guys not have aides to check their statements in advance? Phoney pretexts and violations of sovereignty? In October 2002, Kerry voted in favour of the illegal invasion of Iraq, claiming that “the threat of Saddam Hussein with weapons of mass destruction is real”.

Like Kerry, Hague voted in favour of the Anglo-American assault on Iraq and, as recently as three years ago, was still defending it. “We are leaving [Iraq] a better place and it was worth doing what we have done,” he told the BBC in May 2011.

“For the powerful,” as Noam Chomsky once remarked, “crimes are those that others commit.” For instance: it is “illegal and illegitimate” for Russia to try to detach Crimea from Ukraine by means of a dodgy referendum, Hague says. Indeed, it is. But was it any less illegal or illegitimate for the west to detach Kosovo from Serbia in 1999 with a 78-day Nato bombing campaign? Territorial integrity matters – until it doesn’t.

How about the west’s double standards in the Middle East? Fresh from berating Putin over his Ukrainian land-grab, David Cameron arrived in Israel, where he refused to allow the words “occupied” or “occupation” to cross his lips in a speech to the Knesset and described a halt to the construction of Israel’s illegal settlements as a “concession”. Can you imagine our PM calling a Russian withdrawal from Crimea a “concession”? Or threatening Israeli leaders with sanctions and visa bans? For the record, Israel has been occupying both the West Bank and Syria’s Golan Heights, in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions, for 47 years.

Most of these examples will be dismissed by the more fanatical apologists of western foreign policy as “whataboutery”. This is the term said to have been coined by the Northern Irish politician John Hume to denounce the practice of deflecting attention from a particular crime or abuse by bringing up a similar crime perpetrated by others.

Yet the point here isn’t to deflect or divert attention. Few on the anti-war left pretend Putin is anything other than a thug who yearns for the dark days of the Soviet Union, or that Yanukovych wasn’t a corrupt autocrat. Rather, the point of so-called whataboutery is to expose the hollowness of our leaders’ claims to hold any kind of moral high ground in the international arena – or to be ethically motivated by the loss of lives in faraway lands.

Yes, their hearts bleed for the victims of Putin, but not for the victims of el-Sisi. They are outraged at attempts by Yanukovych to call on Russian troops to help suppress unrest in Ukraine – but not by the pro-western king of Bahrain’s reliance on Saudi troops to stifle protests in his island nation.

The truth is that “whataboutery” is a term deployed to cover up the egregious hypocrisy and unctuous sanctimony at the heart of western foreign policy; to shut down any discussion of our glaring and shameful inconsistencies when it comes to matters of war and peace. Ironically, it is the accusation of whataboutery, not the whataboutery itself, that is the ultimate moral evasion. Because double standards matter. 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this column is crossposted

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.