I listened (on Youtube) to a few words spoken by Boris Johnson on Monday at NATO headquarters. 99 words, to be precise:
We share the view that the poisoning of Sergei Skripal is not an isolated case, but the latest in a pattern of reckless behaviour by the Russian State. That behaviour goes back many years. From Russia’s annexation of Crimea to cyberattacks and its involvement in the Syrian war, Russia has shown itself, the Russian State has shown itself to have a blatant disregard for international order, for international law and values, our values. Those values sit at the heart of NATO and everything that we do, which is why our NATO Allies have shown such strong and undivided support.
I was utterly astonished. I was amazed that it was possible to get so much untruth into such a small package. It was a bit like Hillaire Belloc’s poem, Matilda.
Matilda told such dreadful lies, it made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes.
Not that Johnson told any actual lies. He knows that to do so is politically foolish. But that does not mean that what he was saying is not utterly untrue.
What Boris actually said
I’ll go through it.
We share the view that the poisoning of Sergei Skripal is not an isolated case, but the latest in a pattern of reckless behaviour by the Russian State.
Technically speaking, this is correct. Johnson has just been welcomed to the podium by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, and is thanking him for his welcome. And the two of them do, indeed, take the same view of the Skripal poisoning.
As for the matter of whether there has been a patter of reckless behaviour by the Russian state, well, I don’t doubt that one could make a good case for it.
But whether the Russian State is, in fact, responsible for the Skripal poisoning is debatable. Does Johnson know something relevant and significant that the public have not been told? If not, it seems to me that he is jumping to a hasty conclusion – one that seems unlikely to me. And that, I think, is less than honest. It’s fair to say “I think the evidence points that way” or “I think it is quite likely.” But Johnson has gone well beyond that.
That behaviour goes back many years. From Russia’s annexation of Crimea to cyberattacks and its involvement in the Syrian war, Russia has shown itself, the Russian State has shown itself to have a blatant disregard for international order, for international law and values, our values.
Let’s start with Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Technically speaking, Johnson is quite right. It was contrary to international law. But it was done peacefully – three people died. It allowed the people of Crimea self-determination (which is more than Spain is prepared to offer to the people of Catalonia). They had a referendum, in which 96.77% of the people voted in favour of becoming part of Russia – and which is generally regarded as free and fair. Crimea had always been part of Russia until 1954, when the Soviet leadership transferred it to Ukraine. The people of Crimea did not consider themselves to be Ukrainian (most were ethnic Russians whose first language was Russian) and didn’t want to be part of Ukraine – and they were deeply suspicious of the new government in Ukraine which had been enacting laws against the use of the Russian language.
So yes, technically against international law. But on the scale of things, a bit like driving at 50 mph in a zone where the speed limit is 40 – hardly a major crime.
Then there are the cyberattacks. But these are much like the Skripal poisoning. There has been numerous allegations made about Russian cyberattacks in several different countries (see the Wikipedia article), but there is not a single case where we know for certain that the Russian government is responsible – and most of them seem pretty dubious. And in any case, nobody is alleged to have died from any of them – indeed, it is difficult to see that they have done much harm.
And then there is involvement in the Syrian War. And yes, Russia has been involved in the war in Syria. There is nothing illegal about its involvement. It was invited in by the Syrian government, which was losing territory to Jihadist and other Islamist militias – such as ISIS and al-Qaeda (who operated under various names in Syria. The Russian military helped the Syrian government it fighting back, with the result that the amount of Syria under the control of the Jihadists is now a lot smaller. And yes, the Russian military was responsible for killing people – including civilians – but that is inevitable in modern war.
Boris Johnson says that all this constitutes “reckless behaviour” and shows “a blatant disregard for international order, for international law and values.”
How true is what he says?
It seems to me that it is pretty close to being totally untrue. Yes, there has been some disregard for international law – in Crimea. But that is very minor, and pretty harmless. Indeed, in helping people have self-determination, it could be argued that it was actually helpful. But I think that to talk about “reckless behaviour” and showing “a blatant disregard for international order,” what Johnson says is simply not true – or, at the very least, without any real evidence.
As for showing a blatant disregard for international values, I have no idea what he is talking about. But he then adds “our values”. And he goes on to say
Those values sit at the heart of NATO and everything that we do, which is why our NATO Allies have shown such strong and undivided support.
Which values are these that are at the heart of NATO, its member states, and everything they do?
And this is where it really gets interesting. One of the things that Johnson highlighted was Russian action in Syria. But, as I say, Russia was there at the invitation of the Syrian government, which is perfectly legal. However, two NATO countries, the USA and Turkey, currently have troops stationed in Syria, which is illegal under international law. The Turks have invaded Syria, with allied militia, who, according to veteran Middle East reporter Patrick Cockburn of the Independent call “themselves the Free Syrian Army but actually seem closer to al Qaeda and ISIS.”
Indeed, just yesterday, Cockburn reported
“about two thirds of the people have fled from Afrin according to the U.N. About a hundred thousand are registered with the U.N., but the real figure’s probably about twice that. So you know, this is a pretty terrible condition. Particularly as Afrin was one of the most peaceful parts of Syria. It’s a very fertile area, a lot of farming land and so forth, and really nothing had been happening there during the last seven years, and suddenly the whole place is, you know, being devastated. . . . You can see film of these militiamen driving away tractors, looting the shops and so forth. And then we have these videos of the fighters, Arab fighters, saying we’re going to get rid of the Kurds, .. . . So we’re having a demographic change on a big scale in this place. Where the displaced will go, maybe they’ll get to the main Kurdish region. That seems quite likely. . . .You know, they just joined this great sort of swamp of human misery that we have in Syria. “
Furthermore, the war in Syria really got going when outside nations that were hostile to the Syrian government provided opposition militias in an effort to bring down the government – which, to use the words of Boris Johnson, shows “blatant disregard for international order, for international law”. Was Russia involved in that stirring up the war? No – but two NATO countries were. And, surprise, surprise, those two were America and Turkey – who bear a huge part of the blame for what Cockburn calls “this great sort of swamp of human misery that we have in Syria.”
It is interesting that just three days before Boris Johnson made these remarks was a significant anniversary – in fact, significant, in a way, for NATO. In 1968 the Vietnam War was raging, and American troops were actively involved in it. NATO, of course, was founded to oppose the Soviet Union, and the growth of communism world-wide, and America was fighting communist forces in Vietnam which were backed by the Soviet Union. On the 16th of March, 50 years ago last week, near the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai, at least 300 (and probably over 500) unarmed Vietnamese civilians – men, women, and children – were massacred by American troops. The American military covered up the story. It took over a year for it to come out. (I tell the story here.)
It doesn’t say much for the values of the American military.
But even more significantly, the day Johnson spoke was the 15th anniversary of the outbreak of the Iraq War, when two NATO countries, America and Britain, invaded Iraq and overthrew the government.
Daniel Larison’s comments on the Chilcot Report into that war are well worth reading.
Among other things, he says
“Many of us saw at the time that the U.S. and British governments were determined to invade Iraq and were simply searching for a pretext that would give them political cover to do so.
Chilcot says of the March 2003 invasion that “military action at that time was not a last resort.” I don’t see how anyone could have ever honestly thought it was. It is not possible for a preventive war to be waged as a last resort, and that is one reason why there is no justification for waging preventive war. The Iraq war happened to be illegal, but more important it was profoundly unjust and unnecessary. There is no excuse for the unprovoked invasion of another country, and that is undeniably what the Iraq war was. That lesson has been almost completely lost on political leaders in Washington and London, and I suspect it will be for a long time.
A few additional things should be said about the Iraq war. I have said them before, but they need to be repeated frequently so that they aren’t forgotten. Even if Iraq had retained its unconventional weapons programs as Bush and Blair claimed, attacking Iraq would not have been justified. Even if the “threat” they identified had existed, it would not have justified the invasion and occupation of another country, the overthrow of its government, and the ensuing years of devastation and bloodshed. As it happened, the pretext for the war was a lie, and the threat was non-existent, but the Iraq war would still have been a colossal blunder and enormous crime regardless.“
Lies, claimed threats that were non-existent, involvement in Middle Eastern countries that happened to be illegal, and lessons completely lost on political leaders in Washington and London? That sounds familiar.
Dishonesty or delusion?
But how does it all stack up against the phrases Boris Johnson used?
“A pattern of reckless behaviour?” Check.
“. . . behaviour goes back many years?” Check.
Countries showing themselves”to have a blatant disregard for international order, for international law?” Check.
Johnson may not have technically told any lies, but what he said was so far from the truth that it astonished me.
Dishonesty? Probably. But even more so, I think it is delusion.
For it seems to me that just as self-righteousness and belief in our own personal goodness is part of the human condition – belief in the goodness and rightness of our own country is also part of our human condition – part of tribal loyalty. I think that Boris Johnson – and Tony Blair, and George Bush, and Theresa May and Donald Trump – all share that belief, as do most of us.
And one of the reasons I believe it is delusion is that it fits with the Bible’s most memorable passage about self-righteousness: The parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
The point is that people do see themselves as righteous. The Pharisee really believed what he said. He was, in short, delusional.
It is a problem we all face.
And so, perhaps it is me who is deluded. Perhaps Boris Johnson is right, and what I have written above is completely mistaken. If so, I hope I will be prepared to listen when you gently point that out.