“Many in Mideast See Hypocrisy in Western Embrace of Ukraine,” read an Associated Press headline this week. Salon asked: “Whose Lives Really Matter?” and answered its own question in the next breath—“How Racism Colors Coverage of the Crisis in Ukraine.”
MSNBC’s Joy Reid distilled the essence of the racism argument on her show, which was quoted extensively by RT:
The coverage of Ukraine has revealed a pretty radical disparity in how human Ukrainians look and feel to Western media compared to their browner and Blacker counterparts, with some reporters using very telling comparisons in their analyses of the war. . .
We don’t need to ask ourselves if the international response would be the same if Russia unleashed their horror on a country that wasn’t white and largely Christian, because Russia has already done it. In Syria.. . . There is a lot of soul-searching that we need to do in Western media about why some wars and lives seem to matter more than others.
The foreign minister of Qatar agreed, earning an ovation from a Doha Forum audience when he complained that “the humanitarian suffering” seen in Ukraine “has been the suffering of a lot of countries in this region for years” but which has been ignored. On social media, a tweet by Ayo Sogunro, a Nigerian human rights lawyer, has been shared tens of thousands of times:
Can't get it out of my head that Europe cried about a 'migrant crisis' in 2015 against 1.4m refugees fleeing war in Syria and yet quickly absorbed some 2m Ukrainians within days, complete with flags and piano music.
Europe never had a migrant crisis. It has a racism crisis.
— Dr Ayo Sogunro (@ayosogunro) March 10, 2022
File this under ‘Too good to check.’ In fact, Americans and Europeans have expended quite a lot of blood and treasure over the past several decades to defend or help non-whites and non-Christians. The most directly analogous case to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Some commentators may be too young to remember, but the coverage of Kuwait’s suffering at the time was heartrending, including stories about hospitals being plundered and civilians imprisoned, raped, and tortured. Far from countenancing this assault on a non-white nation, the U.S. assembled an international coalition of 35 nations to drive Iraq out of Kuwait in what became the First Gulf War.
Ukrainians might think back on that intervention and ask, “Why did Kuwait’s plight merit a military response while we’ve had to make do with aid and sanctions?” There is an answer, but it has nothing to do with the race or religion of the victims, i.e., Iraq did not possess an arsenal of nuclear weapons (thanks in part to Israel’s timely visit to the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981).
It’s not true that the Western world is indifferent to the suffering of black and brown-skinned people.
In 1992 and 1993, a civil war had devastated Somalia’s agricultural system putting 4.5 million Somalis in danger of starvation. A UN humanitarian relief operation had run aground due to continued violations of the ceasefire by the warring factions and widespread looting. President George H.W. Bush offered to send 25,000 U.S. troops to keep order so that the humanitarian aid could be distributed. What followed under the Clinton administration was the infamous “Black Hawk Down” episode in which 19 Americans were killed and 70 injured by Al Qaeda-trained militants. Americans saw the bodies of dead special operators dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. The revulsion at this was thought to have influenced the Clinton administration to refrain from injecting American troops into Rwanda six months later (a dereliction Clinton later cited as his greatest regret).
The U.S. took military action on behalf of Muslims six times in the past 30 years—in Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and participated (if only from behind) in the military operation that removed Muamar Qaddafi from power when he seemed poised to destroy the city of Benghazi. So call it seven. Say what you will about the wisdom of the Iraq invasion (or the other interventions), there is no doubt that they were undertaken with the goal of freeing people from a dictator, not imposing one. As for treasure, no one will ever know the true cost of the Afghanistan and Iraq operations and the massive rebuilding efforts—schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, banks, and courts—initiated after active hostilities had ended, but estimates put it at $1.1 trillion for Iraq and $2.3 trillion for Afghanistan. Those who make facile comparisons between our wars and the Russian invasion might want to reflect that no Ukrainians are mobbing the Russian embassy in hopes of visas and no Ukrainians are hanging onto Russian jets. You don’t have to agree that the Iraq war was good policy or the long occupation of Afghanistan a wise use of resources to concede that we tried awfully hard to help both countries.
As for the different treatment of Ukrainian versus Mideast refugees, let’s remember that Europe accepted more than one million refugees from Syria and the U.S. accepted several thousand, despite non-trivial fears that ISIS and Al-Qaeda elements might be among those asking for asylum. Arguably, the strain those immigrants placed on European societies—because they did include some terrorists—led directly to the rise of far-right parties. And while we’re thinking of Syria, let’s not forget that Russia also intervened in the conflict—on the side of Bashar al-Assad, helping to reduce Aleppo and other cities to rubble and further immiserating that nation.
“Whose Lives Really Matter?” asks Salon. Well, African lives do. That’s why the United States launched PEPFAR under George W. Bush’s presidency, the largest commitment by any nation to fight a disease in history. The fund has already spent $100 billion and saved an estimated 20 million lives that would have been lost to HIV/AIDS.
So what has triggered this rash of commentary about Ukraine proving the racism of the West? A few comments. An CBS News correspondent in Kyiv, Charlie D’Agata, said that unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, nations that were war torn for years, “You know, this is a relatively civilized, relatively European—I have to choose those words carefully, too—city where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.” And on the BBC, a former Ukrainian official confessed that “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair. . . being killed every day.” Even an Al Jazeera anchor said something wrong: “These are not obviously refugees trying to get away from areas in the Middle East.” The message, H. A. Hellyer of the Carnegie Endowment concluded, was that “It’s much worse when White Europeans suffer than when it’s Arabs or other non-White people.”
Those comments were stupid, but the reason I recited the history above is that you can’t write whole nations off for the stray remarks of a few. In fact, identification with those most like us—in appearance, culture, religion, nation, whatever—is part of human nature and no one of any color is completely immune. Two hundred years ago, Adam Smith put it in memorable terms:
Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment.
Smith continued with reflections that this perfectly humane individual would “would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquility, as if no such accident had happened.” On the other hand,
If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.
Who can deny that this is true? And how can we not despair when humanity is made of such selfish stuff? Smith replies that despite this selfish tendency, we do “sacrifice [our] own interests to the greater interests of others” when the “feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart . . . counteracts the strongest impulses of self-love.”
Europeans and Americans have responded to Ukraine’s plight with empathy and anger and admiration and love. And so have Kenyans and Japanese and Mexicans and Egyptians and billions more. We all have our tribal tendencies and must strive to recognize that all God’s children are of equal moral worth. But looking at our recent history, we’ve done pretty well on that score. So let’s not tar this moment of moral clarity with the racism brush.