In recent weeks, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets of London and other European cities to protest against Israel’s actions in Gaza. At a time when terrible things are taking place across the Middle East, many commentators have asked why those protesting against the Israelis don’t seem as bothered by the deliberate campaign of slaughter being waged by ISIS in Iraq or the Assad regime in Syria.
Accusations of inconsistency and hypocrisy are increasingly met with a counter-accusation of ‘whataboutery’ – a label given to the sort of argument that shifts attention from one issue by asking ‘what about?’ another issue. On one level, this does look like a diversionary tactic. Yet few questions do more to test and clarify arguments than ‘what about?’ – especially when it comes to matters of foreign policy.
Indeed, those who generally oppose western military intervention in the Middle East and elsewhere don’t mind a spot of whataboutery themselves. For instance, when the advocates of the Second Gulf War said that invasion was necessary to stop terrorism, their opponents were justified in asking ‘what about?’ those regimes that had closer links to al-Qaeda and the Taliban than Saddam Hussein ever did. Equally, when the neo-cons and the liberal interventionists used human rights as a justification, they were rightly asked ‘what about?’ human rights in various regimes that the US had no intention of invading.
Whataboutery clearly has its uses.
In regard to Gaza, one answer that’s given to ‘what about ISIS, Assad, etc?’ is that the West isn’t providing support to ISIS or Assad, but does support Israel. This is true, as far as it goes. But the West also supports the current regime in Egypt – prompting a highly pertinent piece of whataboutery from the Washington Post:
“Don’t expect the U.N. Human Rights Council or the Europeans marching against Israel to notice, but the massacre staged by Egyptian security forces on Aug. 14, 2013, in Cairo’s Rabaa Square far exceeds, in its wanton use of force and calculated slaughter of women and children, any action by Israel during the recent fighting in Gaza. According to the Human Rights Watch investigation, at least 817 people, and probably more than 1,000, were killed when police and army troops advanced into the square from each of its five main entrances, backed by armored personnel carriers, bulldozers and snipers posted on rooftops.”
The editorial goes on to provide an eye-opening comparison:
“More people died on Aug. 14 in Rabaa Square than in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 or in any mass killing of protestors since then, the human rights group reckons. In the last 12 months the most repressive regime seen in Egypt in decades has taken hold; thousands of members of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood have been handed death sentences, while secular journalists and leaders of Egypt’s pro-democracy movement have been imprisoned on trumped-up charges.”
This seems to be of insufficient interest to either the interventionist advocates of Western action elsewhere in the Middle East or to the anti-Israel protesters (despite the fact that Egypt blockades Gaza too).
Far from there being too much whataboutery, there isn’t nearly enough of it.
By asking ‘what about?’ more often we might learn something about situations that have previously escaped our attention (for instance millions more Westerners now know something about the Yazidis than a month ago). We might also come to a deeper understanding of the way in which seemingly separate conflicts are in fact intertwined in complex ways that won’t be helped by crude interventions or simplistic protests.
A hundred years ago, Europe was plunged into a cataclysmic war by men who were only concerned with particular causes and selective grievances and who refused to ask the ‘what about?’ questions that might have given them pause for thought.