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Omar al Bashir and the Problem of Whataboutery

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One of the linguistic innovations brought about by the internet is the term "whataboutery." For those who still haven't encountered it, whataboutery describes a fairly transparent argumentative technique, designed to derail debate of one issue by raising another.

I should know -- like others who defend Israel from the charge that it's a rogue state, or the newest incarnation of apartheid, or the worst human rights abuser in the world, I get accused of whataboutery all the time. If I point out, say, Libya's abysmal human rights record, or the institutionalized misogyny of Hamas, the accusation that I'm moving the conversation away from Israel's record onto something else is a pretty standard response.

Yet the accusation of whataboutery can go in both directions. The recent decision of the International Criminal Court to issue a second arrest warrant for the Butcher of Khartoum, Omar Hasan al Bashir, reminded me of some celebrated examples of whataboutery on the previous occasions that al Bashir's role in the genocide in Darfur came to public attention.

In 2008, when the ICC issued its initial warrant, after charging al-Bashir with individual criminal responsibility for crimes against humanity in Darfur, there was a veritable chorus of "what about Bush?" For the American historian Mark Levine, writing on Al Jazeera, "much of the al-Bashir indictment could just as easily be applied to George Bush, the US president... Bush is also directly responsible for the horrific disaster in Iraq." In a similar vein, former Assistant Treasury Secretary Paul Craig Roberts asked darkly, "why al Bashir? Is it because Sudan is a powerless state, and the International Criminal Court hasn't the courage to name George W. Bush and Tony Blair as war criminals?"

The following year, Hugo Chavez arrived in Doha to attend the Arab Summit. Echoing Roberts -- whose writings may be as meaningful for the Venezuelan leader as those of Noam Chomsky -- Chavez thundered, "Why would the ICC not order Bush's arrest or the arrest of the president of Israel?" For good measure, when the ICC issued its second warrant last week, no less a moral authority than Hezbollah opined that this was a ploy to mask the "silence of these legal international institutions over the ongoing Zionist crimes."

How, then, do these examples of whataboutery differ from each other? I would suggest that there are occasions when the very term obfuscates rather than clarifies, and the al Bashir indictment is one of them.

The problem here is not about introducing other issues that may, at first, appear to be tangential. Our understanding of politics can only be strengthened by a comparative approach. Rather, it's the notion that Bush and al Bashir, and by extension the United States and Sudan, are indistinguishable from each other.

You might call this a doctrine of equivalence, although I think it's fair to say that Bush's detractors believe he is worse than al-Bashir (was it an accident that the Al Jazeera photocaption accompanying Levine's piece referred to Darfur not as a "slaughter" or "genocide," but as a "humanitarian catastrophe," with all that implies about the absence of human agency in generating this suffering?) And what underlies this doctrine? Not the insistence that human rights are all-encompassing-all-the-time, but a distinct set of ideological imperatives. In an important paper for Orbis , Ernest Sternberg of SUNY identifies the target as "the global monolith called Empire, which exerts systemic domination over human lives, mainly from the United States. Empire does so by means of economic liberalism, militarism, multinational corporations, corporate media, and technologies of surveillance, in cahoots with, or under the thrall of, Empire's most sinister manifestation, namely Zionism."

The whatboutery dispute, therefore, comes down to this. One side subscribes to the universality of human rights and urges two conclusions. Firstly, more equitable distribution of popular concern across the myriad human rights crises in the world. Secondly, greater awareness that the internal character of a regime -- whether it's a democracy or a tyranny -- will tell you a great deal about how responsive it will be to human rights complaints.

The other side filters everything through the idea of Empire -- including the ICC. If you regard the ICC as a tool of a sinister global conspiracy, there is no need to examine its status as a "court of last resort," and therefore particularly appropriate for those states which lack robust, transparent judicial systems.

But if you inhabit a universe where there is no difference between despots and democrats -- as the UN Human Rights Council does -- then the doctrine of equivalence reigns supreme and the possibilities for pointless whataboutery are, sadly, endless.

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