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