It has become fairly common in recent years for certain kinds of objections to the West’s hostility to Russia and its actions in Ukraine, and elsewhere, to be dismissed as “whataboutism.” So, for example, in response to the description of the Russian invasion of Ukraine as unprovoked and brutal, and therefore of Russia as inherently evil, one might say something like, “but what about the American and British unprovoked and brutal invasion of Iraq?”
It is the latter comment that is then frequently dismissed as whataboutism, as if it were an illegitimate question to raise in relation to the currently routine vilification of Russia and the Russian government. Of course, it is generally true that two wrongs do not make a right, so that even if the US and UK acted brutally with respect to Iraq, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia is not thereby excused. This much is fair enough.
But the charge of whataboutism goes deeper, in that it suggests by implication that any similarities between the actions of the Russian government and the behavior of the American government are irrelevant with respect to an evaluation of Russia’s actions. Therefore, objections that can be described as whataboutism can simply be dismissed without any further consideration.
When a comment or criticism is dismissed as whataboutism, there is a failure on the part of the person dismissing the comment to understand its logic, and it is that logic that I would like to elucidate, painlessly for the reader, I hope. So let us consider these two propositions by Person A and Person B:
Person A: Russia has brutally and morally reprehensibly invaded Ukraine and should be punished by the international community as much as possible.
Person B: But what about the US brutality and moral culpability in invading Iraq, when nobody called for extensive punishment by the international community?
Person B’s question is often dismissed as whataboutism, but we should consider the logic of the issue. Person A has made an ethical judgment to the effect that a specific action, invading Ukraine, is morally reprehensible. That judgment, however, is only reasonable if there is a defensible link between the action and the moral judgment.
For those readers who are not familiar with the general logic of such claims, consider the following admittedly fanciful illustration. If I were to say that “Marie Antoinette was an evil queen because she wore blue shoes,” my ethical judgment would be rejected because there is, presumably, no plausible link between the color of her shoes and the moral character of her role as queen. Ethical and many other sorts of evaluative judgments, to be reasonable, require a defensible link between an event, in our case the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the moral or prescriptive character attributed to it.
Presumably, the general proposition that would serve as such a link in this case would be something like “Nations act morally illegitimately when they invade other countries.” And in the case of Russia and Ukraine, a further claim has been made about what the proper response should be, and that claim involves a similar logic.
For Person A to assert reasonably the prescriptive judgment that Russia should be punished by the international community, there would have to be a more general principle to which Person A appeals, something like “When a nation launches an unprovoked invasion of another, the international community should punish it as much as possible.” Presumably, then, if Person A takes her own proposition seriously, she must bring to bear these two general claims.
When Person B says, “what about the US and Iraq,” she is implicitly suggesting one or both of two possible points. If we accept the general principle that enables Person A’s proposition to be reasonable, then consistency would require that it apply to all similar cases. But no one, or almost no one, applied it to the similar case of the US invasion of Iraq, including, one supposes, Person A. Therefore, either Person A does not in fact accept the general proposition that it is morally wrong for one country to invade another, or Person A accepts the general proposition, but then hypocritically refuses to apply it to similar cases.
If Person A does not accept the general proposition that nations are morally culpable if they invade another, then the claim that Russia has done something morally reprehensible by invading Ukraine is not logically legitimate. Much more would have to be said and shown for it to be so.
If Person A accepts the general proposition but applies it only selectively, then again, the claim that Russia has done something morally reprehensible by invading Ukraine is not logically legitimate, simply because without further explanation for why the general principle should apply in one case but not in another, similar case, the moral criticism is not reasonably linked to the action.
The same point applies to the rest of Person A’s claim that Russia should be punished. Because she does not apply the same judgment to the US after its invasion of Iraq, either Person A does not accept the general prescriptive claim that nations should be punished when they behave badly, or she applies it arbitrarily to Russia. In either case, the proposition that Russia should be punished does not reasonably prevail.
By saying, “what about the US invasion of Iraq,” then, Person B is implicitly saying that the moral judgment and recommendation to punish fail because either Person A does not accept the general principle that would be required, or Person A is applying the principle arbitrarily, and therefore unreasonably.
That is the logic of saying “what about Iraq”, or something like that. Though the full logic of the question is not stated explicitly, it is a perfectly reasonable question for Person B to ask, because its implied criticism of Person A’s judgment is reasonable.
It is also a reasonable question for Person B to ask in light of the deplorable, indeed brutal, behavior of the US and its allies in Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other places in recent years and decades. To dismiss such a criticism as “whataboutism” is to act unreasonably, either because one does not understand the nature of the criticism, or because one chooses to avoid the criticism rather than respond to it.