Rich Lowry, a man who spent much of the Donald Trump presidency arguing his rhetoric doesn’t matter, look at his policies, is very worried about Joe Biden’s words. In a column last Thursday for Politico, Lowry argued that President Biden was wrong to call out Russia for genocide. Naturally, it took only hours for the Kremlin propaganda machine to quote Lowry’s article.
Let’s look at the record. As recently as April 4, President Biden rejected an opportunity apply the “genocide” label to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Putin “is brutal,” Biden said to reporters upon exiting his helicopter, “and what’s happening in Bucha is outrageous, and everyone’s seen it.”
“Do you agree that it’s genocide?” a reporter asked him.
“No,” Biden replied. “I think it is a war crime.”
But a week later, on April 12, in a speech in Iowa, the president used the g-word, saying that economic inflation in the United States should not “hinge on whether a dictator declares war and commits genocide a half a world away.” Two hours later, he affirmed his word choice to reporters, explaining his change of mind:
Yes, I called it genocide. It has become clearer and clearer that Putin is just trying to wipe out the idea of even being—being able to be Ukrainian. And the amount—the evidence is mounting. It’s different than it was last week. The—more evidence is coming out of the—literally, the horrible things that the Russians have done in Ukraine. And we’re going to only learn more and more about the devastation. And we’ll let the lawyers decide internationally whether or not it qualifies, but it sure seems that way to me.
Lowry disagrees: “There are many things that Russia can justly be accused of in Ukraine—from launching a war of unprovoked aggression, to displaying depraved indifference to the lives and welfare of civilians, to carrying out war crimes,” he writes, “but committing genocide is not one of them.”
Lowry is right that terminology matters and that picking words precisely can be vitally important in government and politics. (But again: Where was this sensitive concern for terminological precision during the last administration, when Donald Trump spat out words like “treason” and “invasion” and “criminal” with all the care of a tween experimenting with dipping tobacco?) The problem is, in this case, Biden has the better of the argument: Russia’s actions in Ukraine merit the label “genocide.”
In backing up his argument, Lowry refers to the U.N. definition of genocide: “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
But Lowry stops short of citing what constitutes such “acts.” So allow me to quote the rest of the U.N. definition:
1) Killing members of the group;
2) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
3) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
4) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
5) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
The first two points are undeniably happening—Russian forces are killing Ukrainians and causing them serious bodily and mental harm. The third point is arguably happening as well. And although Lowry asserts that Russian forces are not “making cultural and ethnic distinctions in their brutality,” note that the definition of genocide includes national identity. There is no question that Russia is acting “with the intent to destroy” Ukrainians as a national group. We know this because Russia has been quite clear about it.
While the fourth kind of act listed in the definition of genocide—preventing births—isn’t happening, the fifth point remains a troubling possibility, although the facts remain murky. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have been removed to Russia, many reportedly by force. If it is true that Putin’s forces have abducted and forcibly transferred thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the U.S. government have said, that disturbing action also has a very strong odor of genocide. Russia may try to cook up a plausible-sounding explanation—perhaps claiming that the children were taken for safekeeping or that they are being interned for their wellbeing—but if it is true that the adoption of these children is being fast-tracked, as some reports have held, that explanation is grotesquely false. New details may yet emerge that could clarify or complicate the picture. But at the very least this is the sort of action that is suggestive of a horrific intention to erase the Ukrainian nation by taking away the next generation.
The definition of genocide quoted above comes from the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which President Harry Truman originally signed on behalf of the United States in 1948 and was fully ratified as a treaty and implemented in 1988 under President Ronald Reagan. In other words, this is the text of U.S. law: You’ll find that same U.N. definition at 18 U.S.C. § 1091. So nobody should be surprised that the president of the United States—the leader of a country that has repeatedly promised “Never Again”—would acknowledge that the definition of genocide in our country’s legal code sure seems to apply to the circumstances in Ukraine, even while admirably acknowledging that we’ll have to “let the lawyers decide” whether the facts, as they continue to become clearer, exactly fit to the definition.
I am no Biden apologist. I have been plenty critical of the president. I agree with Lowry that the administration has not supplied Ukraine with enough military supplies quickly enough. And reasonable people can disagree on whether President Biden should have said that Putin “cannot remain in power.” (I happen to think he was right.) But to argue based on the facts we now know that Biden was wrong to call Russia’s actions in Ukraine “genocide” is at best ignorant and at worst cynical partisan politics.
Is that really the hill—or the pile of rubble and bodies—Lowry wants to die on?