The battle brewing among some US liberals in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine recalls debates that occurred in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait.
Back then instead of focusing on Kuwait, some of my colleagues angered by the immediate support the US had offered to Kuwait charged that it reflected a US “double standard.” Palestine, they argued, had been occupied for decades and no such US condemnation had been forthcoming. While true, it was irrelevant to the matter at hand. Of course I supported the Palestinian right to self-determination, but I refused to have a double standard myself by denying that same right to Kuwaitis.
This issue of double standards is playing out again today, albeit in a more multi-layered way. A few individuals have criticised my support for Ukraine because, in their view, that cause is tarnished by US support for Ukraine and, of course, US double standards. But what is at issue isn’t the US – it’s the Ukrainian people facing a brutal assault on their country and independence.
This is not to dismiss the reality of the double standards of US political leaders, the media, and commentators with no self-awareness as they display their anti-Arab bigotry and hypocrisy. Examples abound:
- Unremarked upon by the US press, an Israeli government official denounced the Russian invasion as a “grave violation of the international order,” while another expressed his government’s support for Ukraine’s “territorial integrity and sovereignty” — as if Israel has ever respected these concepts. They invaded and occupied Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, justifying their actions using the same “security” argument claimed by the Russians.
- Early in the invasion, two short film clips went viral on social media: a child playing and then being incinerated by an aerial bombardment; and a young girl hitting a soldier twice her size, while shouting that he should go back to his country. Both the child victim and the girl were presented as Ukrainians, while the bomb and soldier were claimed to be Russian. Neither was the case: the first a Palestinian killed in an Israeli air assault in Gaza; the second a Palestinian girl, Ahed Tamimi, who was later arrested for striking an Israeli soldier. As American TV showed “heroic” Ukrainians stockpiling Molotov cocktails for use against the Russian invaders, a 14-year-old Palestinian boy was shot dead for throwing a Molotov cocktail at an Israeli settler’s car. It’s not what you do, but who you are that determines how you are to be seen.
- Consider boycotts and sanctions — two effective non-violent means of confronting aggressors. Several US governors and state legislatures have rushed through bills and executive orders calling for boycotts of all Russian goods. These same states have criminalised boycotts against Israel. Bipartisan consensus exists both for sanctions against Russia for violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and international law, and against sanctions for Israel despite decades-long violations of Palestinian rights and international law. Again, it’s not what you do, but who you are.
- Ukrainian refugees have been welcomed by the same European countries that closed their doors in the face of Middle Eastern and African refugees fleeing conflict. Multiple media commentators and political leaders have “explained” that these “civilised” refugees are “different.”
- Finally, the US insists that in defending Ukraine it is standing up for international law, human rights, and democracy — concepts which the US has never applied to securing the rights and freedoms of the Palestinian people.
Behind each example of double standards is racism. One group is more worthy of support than another; the rights of one group are sacrosanct, while others are expendable; one people cannot be condemned even when engaging in criminal behaviour because their security is more important than the rights of those they oppress.
While these double standards are deplorable and must be combatted, they don’t negate the correctness and urgency of defending the rights of the Ukrainian people. Despite others’ double standards, we cannot allow ourselves to make judgements based on the same evil logic to selectively determine who has rights and who does not.
* The writer is president of the Arab-American Institute.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.