- By Jake SullivanJake Sullivan is a Martin R. Flug visiting lecturer at Yale Law School. He served in the Barack Obama administration as national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden and director of policy planning at the State Department, as well as deputy chief of staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think — our country’s so innocent?”
And so Donald Trump once again rushed to Vladimir Putin’s defense.
Trump’s comments to Fox’s Bill O’Reilly this weekend closely echoed a 2015 conversation with MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, in which Scarborough observed that Putin “kills journalists that don’t agree with him,” and Trump replied: “Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing, too.”
Apparently when someone calls Putin a killer, Trump’s response is to call Americans killers. It’s a chilling thing that our own president doesn’t seem to know or value that, in America, we don’t kill journalists or political opponents like Putin does.
But I want to focus on a different aspect of Trump’s remarks.
As others have noted, Trump isn’t simply embracing Putin’s preferred talking points. He’s adopting Putin’s favorite propaganda device — a refurbished Soviet tactic that Edward Lucas, who spent years as the Economist’s bureau chief in Russia, named “whataboutism.” Lucas described it this way: “Criticism of the Soviet Union (Afghanistan, martial law in Poland, imprisonment of dissidents, censorship) was met with a “What about…” (apartheid South Africa, jailed trade-unionists, the Contras in Nicaragua, and so forth).”
In 2008, Lucas saw whataboutism making a comeback in Russia. By 2012, it was out in full force. Here’s one reported example: When Western governments condemned Putin’s crackdown on the post-election protests, “Kremlin officials were ready with: ‘What about the United Kingdom? Breaking the law during public gatherings there could lead to fine of 5,800 pounds sterling or even prison.’”
Since then, Putin has made this a steady drumbeat in his defense of Russian aggression in Ukraine and Syria. But what about Kosovo, he asks? What about Iraq? What about Libya? What about? What about? What about?
“Whataboutism,” with its sly equivalences, false parallels, and misleading analogies, can exhaust and frustrate those who confront it. Putin is an especially skillful practitioner.
Now something new is happening. The American president is taking Putin’s “what about you” tactic and turning it into “what about us?” He is taking the very appealing and very American impulse toward self-criticism and perverting it. It’s simplistic, even childish — but more importantly, it’s dangerous. Here’s why.
First, whataboutism is unilateral moral disarmament. America isn’t perfect, but it is principled. We care about freedom and equality and decency. We (mostly) try to do the right thing — and when we don’t, Americans hold their country to account. That’s one of the many things that makes us great. There’s a crucial practical benefit to our national character; past presidents have seen that it can be a powerful asset in shaping global affairs. Trump, on the other hand, has made it clear that, as far as he’s concerned, our national character is completely unremarkable. That takes off the table a raft of American foreign policy tools: moral calls to action, rallying to higher aspirations, shaming and cajoling. After all, we’ve got killers too.
Second, whataboutism stunts America’s global leadership. Leadership requires action when bad things happen abroad. Trump’s attitude leads to inaction and paralysis. Putin’s a killer? So what, so are we. And just like that, the mistake that was the Iraq War gives a free pass to Putin to invade his neighbors (we invaded countries, too!). Our own errors mean that we can’t contest a whole host of wrongs our adversaries might commit (we assassinated foreign leaders, too! We bombed civilians, too!). A country cannot lay claim to leadership if it is in the grips of this logic.
Third, it puts the American people at risk here at home. Maybe you agree with Trump that America isn’t so great compared to other countries — fine. But you should still be alarmed that our president doesn’t blink before throwing us under the bus. And you should wonder whether he’s going to even acknowledge the threats we face, much less confront them. Remember what Trump defenders said when faced with overwhelming, conclusive evidence that Russia interfered in our election. You guessed it: we spy, too! The American president should do something about Russia interference in America’s elections because he is the American president. Full stop. But whataboutism takes away the responsibility to do the right thing.
Finally, whataboutism — with all of its blurring and even outright erasing of moral lines — can easily creep into domestic policy debates. Consider the response of Trump’s defenders to criticism of the immigration executive order: Barack Obama did it, too! He suspended Iraqi refugees in 2011! Never mind that what Obama did was different in key ways that ruin the analogy. He did something vaguely similar — and therefore we can’t have a reasonable, fact-based conversation about the obvious logical, moral, and policy flaws in Trump’s edict. Whataboutism at home, just like whataboutism abroad, could slowly but surely exhaust and frustrate the American public until we just throw up our hands.
Scarier still, if Trump can see no moral distinction between Russia’s murder of journalists and the “plenty of killing” America apparently already does, then whataboutism grants Trump a frightening latitude to commit awful deeds as president. In Trump’s telling, that’s already part of the job description.
Let’s remember what genuine moral analysis and honest self-criticism look like. Obama didn’t always get the balance right, but he had powerful moments. In his speech in Brussels in 2014, he effectively parried Putin’s arguments on Ukraine. He exploded the false analogy to Kosovo and even to Iraq — a war he had vigorously opposed. A year later, in Selma, he went on to broaden the argument, describing how America errs, then learns, then ultimately improves.
That’s what we need from an American president. Not this.
Top photo: Trump and O’Reilly watch the Yankees play the Orioles at Yankee Stadium in New York on July 30, 2012. JIM MCISAAC/Getty Images