Tuesday, 15 May 2018

What About That?

I am surprised by how easily some people are persuaded that a point is wrong when it is dismissed as ‘Whataboutism’. Why, when the person making the case is claiming a moral fault, is it not legitimate to point out that he himself has the same fault? 

The Bible is pretty clear on this. In The Gospel according to St Matthew Chapter 7, vv 3-5, Our Lord says:

‘And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? ‘Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.’ 

The same metaphor appears in almost identical words in the Gospel according to St Luke Chapter 6, vv 41-2. It seems odd, when moralising in a society whose morals are supposed to be Christian (indeed, on what other basis can we approve or disapprove of any action?), to classify the preaching of Jesus Christ as either a fallacy or as ‘whataboutery’. 

The term ‘whataboutism’ seems to have first appeared in the Cold War, when the USSR might point to the American treatment of the black minority there, when attacked for being a police state with labour camps. But this was feeble. The two things are not the same. Certainly the USA is very far from being a perfect society, and its treatment of African-Americans has been (and to some extent remains) highly unsatisfactory. But this simply wasn’t comparable with the USSR’s system of censorship, repression and political trials. 

What’s more, anyone who knows anything about Russia knows that ethnic bigotry is very common in Russia, generally directed against the nearest available targets, Central Asians, Chechens and peoples from beyond the Caucasus, but liberally applied to anyone with a dark skin from any part of the planet. 

The Soviet propaganda was more effective when it responded to complaints of Soviet repression in the satellite states of Eastern Europe by noting that the USA did not readily tolerate governments hostile to it in Latin America. But there were differences even here. In fact, since the days of the Marsahll Plan in the 1940s, a fundamentally free-market and politically conservative USA had often allied with social democratic governments in Western Europe, despite not liking their internal policies very much. The USSR, except in its very late stages when it tolerated Hungary’s semi-capitalist ‘goulash communism’, demanded Communist Party rule in theory and practice. 

In general the USSR’s propaganda, and the arguments of its apologists in the West, could rightly be dismissed as ‘false equivalence of opposites’. There were similarities between the superpowers, but they were trivial, whereas there were differences, and they were fundamental. 

So now let us turn to the new bout of alleged ‘Whataboutery’. I am myself struck by the profound similarities between Russian intervention in Syria, and Russia’s use of airpower against Islamist urban guerrillas in Aleppo, and Western intervention in Iraq and the sue of western airpower against Islamist urban guerrillas in Mosul. I pointed this out a couple of years ago, in conversation with Christina Lamb, on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show. Ms Lamb scoffed, but I have never been able to see why she did. 

The main difference between the two events is not material. In both cases the Islamists were using the population as hostages in dense built-up areas; in both cases the major outside powers eventually sued heavyweight airpower to crush them, with substantial civilian casualties. Nobody disputes that these attacks happened, or that innocent people died in them. But, as I’ve pointed out here, the quantity and tone of the reports on Aleppo have been quite different from those of the reports on Mosul. 

But in Russia’s case, media, ‘NGOs’ and diplomats accused Russian forces of deliberately targeting civilians, hospitals, etc (I have seen zero proof of this deliberate targeting, for which you would need access to the orders given to the pilots, it seems to me). No such charges (quite rightly) were made against US British or other coalition air forces. This isn’t false equivalence of opposites. This is false opposition of equivalents. I mention this by way of introduction to three points I wish to make about today.

The first is the story of Abdel Hakim Belhaj (or Belhadj, if you prefer, I don’t mind). Britain now admits helping in an operation in which this man was kidnapped by the CIA , along with his wife, held in a secret prison before being flown in chains to Libya, where the Gaddafi state was free to torture him at will in its disgusting dungeons.

The Guardian reported that our Prime Minister, Theresa May ‘admitted the UK should have done more to reduce the risk that the couple could be mistreated and had wrongly missed opportunities to help them once they were held in the prisons of the then Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi. The Prime Minister acknowledged that Britain should have realised sooner that its international allies were involved in unacceptable practices, implying criticism of Libya for torturing suspects as well as the CIA's practice of rendition.’ 

This is so naïve it makes Pollyanna look like Machiavelli, and would be rather sweet if it didn’t involve people being chained up, starved, hooded, wrapped in duct tape, kidnapped by operatives of the Land of the Free and crammed into secret jails, and then loaded on to unmarked aircraft for a trip to one of the world’s worst tyrannies. 

There’s a little side-bar to it, as well, which I find intensely moving. I don’t have much time for John McCain in general, though (like any sentient being) I have always felt that he conducted himself with extreme courage and dignity during his nightmare captivity in North Vietnam. Now Senator McCain is very ill and close to death. The Guardian notes:

‘This is a very live issue indeed. In Washington, Gina Haspel is currently having her confirmation hearings as Donald Trump's new CIA director. From 2002, Ms Haspel ran the secret CIA centre in Thailand where inmates were tortured and where Ms Boudchar [Belhaj’s wife, pregnant at the time of her state-sponsored kidnap] was mistreated. Mr Trump supports torture. He wants to bring back waterboarding. John McCain, the only US senator to have actually been tortured, is fighting Ms Haspel's nomination on that basis.’

A White House aide has sneeringly remarked that Senator McCain is ‘dying anyway’. And it looks as if President Trump won’t be welcome at Senator McCain’s funeral. Here’s a good summary of a controversy that hasn’t been as widely or as prominently reported in Britain as it should have been.

So this is the civilised West at work, and with that a background, a certain Andrew Parker, Director-General of the British Security Service (known to many as MI5) has made a pious speech in Berlin. Let ,me get something straight here. Aided by the TV series Spooks, the BSS has got istelf a glamorous toughie reputation, and many people refer to it as a spy service. It is not. It has no espionage duties.

In fact the only accurate generic name for such an organisation, especially given the huge budgets, status and immunity form scrutiny which it enjoys these days, is that it is a form of Secret Police agency. True, it so far lacks powers of arrest. But, following the granting of such powers to civil servants (a major breach of an ancient rule) in the ‘National Crime Agency’, it cannot be long before this line is crossed.

As usual when the principles of English liberty are being raped or tossed lightly aside, few realise the significance of the granting of powers of arrest to civil servants. Civil servants are under the direct authority of government, and of ministers. Police officers are not and have never been civil servants. They are sworn constables, whose duty is to the law, which they have sworn an oath to uphold without fear or favour, and not to the state itself. This position gives them the freedom, and indeed the duty, to refuse an unlawful order from a technical superior.

Their local nature also helps them to resist central government pressure (though they are nothing like as local as they should be, or as they were before the Jenkins-imposed mergers of 1967) - though the Ministry of Defence Police, the British Nuclear Police and the British Transport Police are national bodies perhaps more subject to Whitehall than they should be.

My own nightmare is the Civil Contingencies Act of 2004 (read it sometime), an emergency powers law so extensive that the government of the day can, if it wishes, turn this country into a sort of dictatorship in a matter of hours. So forgive me if I am not a great enthusiast for MI5.

And forgive me if I am sceptical about its frequent, uncheckable claims to have thwarted terror plots. If I had a budget that big, was treated with similar reverence as that accorded to MI5, and was that well-screened from scrutiny, I too might be inclined to make boasts about how good I was at my job. Who could gainsay me?

But now Mr Parker has gone to Berlin to make a well-trailed speech (front page of the semi-official newspaper The Times and all over the BBC this morning), warning Russia that its behaviour, notably over the Skripals, might make it even more of a pariah. Well, no doubt, but I am tempted to say, ‘What about the Belhaj case?’ (And what about the Trump administration’s view of torture and its chosen candidate to head the CIA?) It doesn’t seem to me that a muted apology in the Commons and a cheque for Mr Belhaj’s wronged wife really suggest that we have cleaned out the stables. Does that not make Britain and the USA pariahs too, and if not, why not?

And then let us note the arrival in London of Mr Recep Tayip Erdogan, President of Turkey, whose sinister nature has many times been discussed in this blog, and whose rapidly darkening country I have twice visited to document this.

Mr Erdogan has in recent months turned what was a fairly free and law-governed country into a despotism. The prisons are full of journalists. The courts are lawless instruments of state power. Independent newspapers and broadcasters have been terrified into submission. Mr Erdogan is gathering all the power in Turkey into his person, and creating an executive presidency at least as menacing to a free society as Vladimir Putin’s.

His foreign policy is also highly dangerous, and is causing grave friction in Syria. Oh, and Turkey still occupies North Cyprus, which it invaded in July 1974 in an action which is an extraordinarily close diplomatic and political parallel to Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea in 2014.

Yet Mr Erdogan is not called a pariah, and is to be welcomed at Downing Street and given tea with the Queen (as well as offered excellent deals on military equipment), photo opportunities and developments which will help him, in a rapidly approaching election, to consolidate his despotic power.

So, Mr Parker, What About That? What About Mr Belhaj? And What About Mr Erdogan? Is your wrath at Russia genuine? If it is, why do you not feel it for those who took part in the sordid kidnapping and rendition of Mr Belhaj, and who defend or excuse torture as an instrument of the state? And why do you not make speeches in Berlin (or, come to that, in Birmingham or Basildon), attacking Turkey?

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