Peter Beinart provides a thoughtful analysis of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the responses.
In 1943, the Hungarian-born journalist Arthur Koestler wrote: “In this war we are fighting against a total lie in the name of a half-truth.” That’s a good motto for American progressives to adopt in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Saying the US stands with Ukraine because America is committed to democracy and the “rules-based international order” is at best a half-truth. The US helps dictatorships like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates commit war crimes in Yemen, employs economic sanctions that deny people from Iran to Venezuela to Syria life-saving medicines, rips up international agreements like the Iran nuclear deal and Paris climate accords, and threatens the international criminal court if it investigates the US or Israel.
But this hypocrisy wouldn’t have fazed Koestler, because it’s nothing new. In 1943, the alliance that fought Hitler was led by a British prime minister who championed imperialism, an American president who presided over racial apartheid, and Joseph Stalin. Koestler’s point wasn’t that the US or Britain, let alone the USSR, were virtuous in general. It was that they were virtuous relative to Nazi Germany in the specific circumstances of the second world war, and that these sinful governments were the only ones with the geopolitical heft to stop a totalitarian takeover of Europe.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia is neither as powerful nor as genocidal as Hitler’s Germany. But Putin’s claim that historical and cultural affinity gives Russia the right to bludgeon Ukraine into submission is a total lie. It is no less of a lie because the US – by pushing Nato ever-further eastward after 1989 – exploited Russian weakness and compounded Russian humiliation. The Treaty of Versailles was also a victor’s peace. It also strengthened toxic political forces in the defeated nation forced to accept its terms. Hitler’s murderous revanchism, like Putin’s today, was still a crime.
Koestler’s adage is subject to abuse. Hawks might interpret it as suggesting that because the US is a democracy and Russia is a dictatorship, America has the moral high ground in every clash between the two. That’s not true. Democracies can commit aggression and tyrannies can oppose it. When Putin opposed the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, Russia was defending a half-truth against America’s total lie. When his government backed UN resolutions condemning Israeli settlements that the US vetoed, Russia supported human rights and international law while the US defied them. When Joe Biden declares, as he did last Thursday in his remarks on Ukraine, that “America stands up to bullies. We stand up for freedom. This is who we are,” progressives should hold their applause. Claiming the US possesses an inherent inclination to support liberty implies that the United States can be trusted to act outside of the bounds of international law – a logic that leads to the torture chambers of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay.
The US media has been giving a lot of coverage of this war that describes the Ukrainians as plucky and defiant resistors to the massive invasion forces of Russia. It rightly gives voice to many Ukrainians who are refugees or sheltering in fear or taking up arms. It is, after all, the victims of aggression who need to be heard from and supported.
But one has to note that the people of the countries that the US periodically invades are rarely given the benefit of that kind of coverage. At best they are largely ignored or those who fight against the invaders are labeled by the US government as terrorists and summarily shipped off to CIA-operated black torture sites around the world or to Guantanamo while the media gives the perspective of the aggressor. One is more likely to hear admiring stories about the immense technological capabilities of the US military or of the travails of US soldiers fighting in a strange land than of the suffering inflicted on the local population.