British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said at the weekend that he had “never seen such a stark division between good and evil,” as he charged Russian president Vladimir Putin of “trying to crush a blameless, innocent civilian population.” What on earth did he mean?
Putin’s invasion and its effects are horrific, and the humanitarian crisis will be around for some time. However, like many others, when I hear politicians talking about “good” and “evil” it is almost always evidence of propaganda.
If we understand the theory of speech correctly, we know that when world leaders adopt binary terminology —George W Bush’s “Axis of Evil”, for example — then language is stripped of its usual function to describe, inform and educate. Instead, it is repurposed to carry out a performative role, which is another way of saying that it misinforms and stokes people’s emotions and prejudices.
As much as that may be understandable, people generally view the kind of vilification used by Johnson as further proof of the West’s double standards and blinkered Eurocentric view of the world. While such a view has become entrenched, never has its ugly manifestation been presented as vividly as over the past month.
Johnson is prone to exaggeration, so under normal circumstances his comment would probably have passed without comment, despite his provocative views about Muslims and people of colour. Moreover, he made a speech at the Conservative Party’s spring conference in Blackpool on Saturday, and prompted a lot of anger beyond the party faithful by comparing the Ukrainian response to the Russian invasion with the desire of the British to gain their “freedom” by pushing for Brexit. Johnson was a leading campaigner for Brexit and spends an inordinate amount of time trying to convince the British public at every opportunity that leaving the EU was the right thing to do.
“I know that it’s the instinct of the people of this country, like the people of Ukraine, to choose freedom, every time. I can give you a couple of famous recent examples” said Johnson. “When the British people voted for Brexit in such large, large numbers, I don’t believe it was because they were remotely hostile to foreigners. It’s because they wanted to be free to do things differently and for this country to be able to run itself.”
Senior EU officials slammed his remark as did a number of his own cabinet members, who distanced themselves from the prime minister’s comments.
What makes Johnson’s claim that he has “never seen such a stark division between good and evil,” as the Russian invasion incredibly insensitive is its timing. His hyperbole dishonours the victims of the US invasion of Iraq, among many others.
I admit that historical comparisons are often a major challenge. In any walk of life, judging events separated by time and space, can be a perilous task. Fallacies such as presentism — the application of current ideals and moral standards to interpret historical the actions of figures — invariably come into play and distort our image of the past.
Be that as it may, it seems that Johnson is wilfully ignorant of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and the horrors that followed, given that he made his remark on the 19th anniversary of what is generally considered the worst foreign policy disaster in modern history.
The invasion, with its subsequent war and occupation, was launched under false pretences without any legitimacy under international law. It claimed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives; that figure is more than a million according to some estimates. Millions more were displaced from their homes. The shambolic regime imposed by the US on Iraq fuelled decades of sectarian violence and spawned a generation of terrorists who spread all over the globe. The most grotesque human rights violations were carried out in US-run prisons, such as the infamous Abu Ghraib. The abuse and torture of largely innocent civilian Iraqi detainees at the hands of US troops was common. The full extent of what went on inside Abu Ghraib was leaked to a shocked world in April 2004.And yet, despite the false pretences of (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction, and grave human rights abuses, not a single American or British official has ever been held accountable for the war and the insufferable human toll it caused in Iraq.
Johnson’s words are even more baffling given more recent horrors on the world stage. Even as he made his claim, the US declared that Myanmar’s military had committed genocide against the country’s Muslims. The administration of President Joe Biden has been weighing up for some time the legal designation for the bloody campaign raged by the regime against members of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority ethnic group. It finally joined the UN and concluded that the widespread campaign of rape, crucifixions and drownings, as well as the burning to death of families and children, all amount to genocide.
Why had this genocide slipped Johnson’s mind? Was it, perhaps, because the Rohingya are not Europeans?
And what about the alleged genocide of Uyghur Muslims by the Chinese Communist Party? Human rights groups believe that China has detained more than one million Uyghurs over the past few years in a large network of “re-education camps”. Hundreds of thousands have apparently been sentenced to lengthy prison terms. There is also credible evidence that Uyghurs are being used as forced labour and women are being forcibly sterilised. Some former camp detainees have also alleged that they were tortured and sexually abused.
The genocide of Bosnian Muslims is well within living memory, including the Serbs’ brutal murder of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995. Israel’s occupation of Palestine, meanwhile, is a century-long, ongoing colonisation project which has metastasised into full-blown apartheid according to major international human rights groups.
It is reasonable to suggest that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed the world and that we are living in new and more dangerous times. Furthermore, what Russian forces have done in Ukraine deserves universal condemnation.
However, only in a world where non-European lives simply don’t matter would a British prime minister claim that he has “never seen such a stark division between good and evil” as Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It is ridiculous to suggest, as Johnson does, that Moscow’s crimes are somehow unique.
As crimes go, Putin’s aggression pales in comparison with the price paid by the victims of wars in which the US has been directly and indirectly involved. Ukraine may be tragic, but what is happening is not all that unusual in the modern world. Boris Johnson’s professed shock stems, at best, from wilful ignorance, at worst from his horrifying inability to regard all human suffering as equal in terms of the responses required from the international community.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.