A not-so-artful dodge when conversation gets uncomfortable.
As I write this, the United States and Russia are fighting each other to the last Ukrainian. There are no good guys or bad guys in this war, only victims and perps. Since this ritual has become prerequisite, allow me to state that I oppose Putin invading Ukraine. Just like I opposed W invading Iraq. Just like I opposed Obama invading Syria, bombing Libya, and murdering wedding parties with drone strikes in Pakistan. Just like I opposed Obama and Trump, and now oppose Biden continuing to support the Saudi monarch committing atrocities that may amount to genocide in Yemen. In short, I oppose wars of aggression and the slaughter of regular people trying to go about their lives.
So yes, I oppose Putin going full on George W. Bush on Ukraine. Putin is even using the same arguments in attacking Ukraine that W used to justify “preemptive war” against Iraq. Putin just wants to clear out those Nazi in Ukraine, just like W just wanted to clear those terrorists out of Iraq.
That’s right. Putin isn’t the new Hitler; he’s the new George W. Bush.
Right about now, at least one of my readers (assuming I have any) is accusing me of “whataboutism.” “Whataboutism” is a sad rhetorical gambit where the person using it thinks they are being clever, and yet anyone with a functioning brain sees right through it.
It works like this. Bob is talking about the invasion of Ukraine, rightly incensed that a stronger nation is bullying a weaker nation. Bob goes on to complain that the US government should do more to help the Ukrainians, and lauds the efforts of Apple, Levis, McDonalds, et cetera ceasing to do business in Russia. Bob also lauds (sort of) cutting Russia out of the SWIFT system which processes international payments. Bob’s interlocutor, Sarah, then asks Bob why Apple, Levis, Micky D’s, and so on are not cutting off business with Saudi Arabia to punish them for waging a war of aggression in Yemen or against the US for invading Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and so on. For that matter, why hasn’t SWIFT kicked the US and Saudi Arabia off of their system to encourage them to respect the sovereignty of weaker nations? A flustered Bob then accuses Sarah of engaging in “whataboutism.”
When someone says “whataboutism,” I just hear “derp!” and so should you. Here is why.
Sarah is making an important point to Bob: that the government of the United States in no way, shape, or form cares about the sovereignty of other countries or the right of self-determination of other people. The United States government invades whoever it will, just ask an Iraqi or Afghani. The United States government bombs whoever it wants to, just ask a Serbian, Somali, Syrian, Libyan, Yemeni, Pakistani, and oh hell, the list is too long and you get my point. The United States government impoverishes through “sanctions” whoever it wants, just ask a Cuban, Venezualian, Iranian, and so on. An agreement with the United States government isn’t worth the paper its written on. Again, ask the Iranians. For that matter, ask any Native American Nation with whom the US government made a treaty.
In other words, the actions of the US government over the past 30+ years demonstrate that its fine-sounding moral language about Ukraine is complete bullshit. That is, if the US government cared a damn thing about “sovereignty” and “self-determination” it would not have left a path of invasions, bodies, puppet governments, ruined cities, unexploded landmines, piracy, thievery, and general misery starting with the Korean war up to now. Ask a Native American or a Mexican about the US Government’s love of “sovereignty,” “self-determination,” and “territorial integrity” if you want to discuss the pre-WW2 attitude of the US government.
Given its past actions, if the US government wanted to invade, bomb, or impoverish Ukraine, it would do so without hesitation. If you think otherwise, I have a bridge to sell you.
Ian Welsh does an excellent job setting forth what it would take for us to take the US government seriously when it discusses the invasion of Ukraine:
We are sanctioning Russia for its attack on Ukraine. At the same time we now realize that our attacks on Iraq and Libya were also unjustified war crimes. We pledge 10 trillion dollars in reparations to Iraq and 5 trillion in reparations to Libya over the next 10 years. […] Putin is a war criminal, but so are many US politicians. We will immediately start war crimes trials against George W. Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton among many others for their roles in Iraq and Libya.
Read the whole Ian Welsh essay; it’s powerful medicine. Also check out this Freddie deBoer essay. Go ahead, I’ll still be here when you get back.
Sarah is also testing Bob’s actual commitment to values like national sovereignty, people’s self-determination. Does Bob actually believe in those things? Maybe Bob thinks its “OK when our government does it” (an obnoxious form of special pleading). Maybe Bob has never really thought about the way that the US treats other countries and Sarah sees an opening to broaden his horizons. Or maybe Bob doesn’t really care about these things at all. Just like the US State Department.
The overall point is, when Sarah raises the issue of the behavior of the US government, she is slightly changing the focus of the discussion, but in a legitimate way. Bob signaled that he cares about a nation’s soverignty and a people’s self-determination. Those values provide the basis for his critique of Russia, and so Bob’s actual committments to those values are a fair question before discussion proceeds any further.
This reveals “whataboutism” for the nonsense that it is: a naked ploy by your interlocutor to avoid tough questions about their actual position and possibly their good faith. Look them straight in the eye, call out their attempt to deflect from the topic, and insist on an answer before you listen to them any further.