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
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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
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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