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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

On False Equivalence Arguments

With everything that has been going on in Ukraine and Crimea recently (not gonna link to any news stories, just look on a search engine or news site and you'll find plenty), there've been a lot of opinions and thoughts flying around.  I don't want to comment on the whole crisis, just on one particular set of ideas that keeps popping up across many areas and really gets my goat, the idea of a false moral equivalence.

Recently this idea has been touted in two opinion pieces on CNN by Simon Tisdall (here and here) and an op-ed by Ron Paul in US Today.  Basically the idea goes that the arguments by the West that the vote in Crimea to secede is invalid due to the occupation by Russian troops is invalid because of the presence of US troops in Iraq during their elections.  Get it?  We had troops in Iraq, so that vote was invalid too.  Never mind the vast difference between the two circumstances, the mere surface similarities is enough to make it protestations invalid.

This really gets my goat because the proponents of this view (as far as I have seen anyway) are not looking at anything other than surface similarities.  Before I go much further, I want to link to this opinion piece by Frida Ghitis and this opinion piece by Alexander J. Motyl, both on CNN or to this piece on Slate.  The same thing happened in the Cold War when people compared the actions of the US and the USSR.  In both cases, people who opposed something didn't bother to look beneath the surface to really examine what was going on.  I am not going to get into the argument of whether we should have been in Iraq (that is separate from what I am saying here), but since we were there and we overthrew Saddam Hussein, we had an obligation to set up something new.  Also note how long we took to make sure that the election would run as smoothly as possible (given everything).  Did we have troops there?  Yes, but just like in scientific research, correlation does not imply causation (or equivalence to be more exact in this case).

Contrast this with what happened in Crimea.  After months of relatively peaceful protests, the government fires on and kills protestors.  There is a revolution and the president flees to Russia.  Within days, Crimea has (unmarked) Russian troops in its borders and then "decides" (yes, I am using quotes deliberately) to set a vote for a referendum to join Russia very quickly (March 16).  A referendum in which there was no choice to keep the status quo.  Keep in mind that Putin made similar claims when he attacked Georgia in 2008 and the fact that Russia has a horrendous history of human rights abuses.  All of these add up to make for a situation that is very different from the US troops in Iraq for the elections held *2 YEARS* after the invasion.

Look, I am not saying that the US is perfect, but I get really pissed when people make claims of moral equivalence when they are plainly false.  Making claims based on surface similarities while ignoring the underlying differences is deceitful.  I would also say it makes the person forwarding the ideas lazy, but all too often I suspect that they are not lazy, just ideologically driven and determined to prove a point heedless of other factors.  If you have to resort to false ideas and deceit to make your argument work, give it up.

I do want to emphasize (as I have said before) that I am not saying that the ends justify the means or that intent is everything, but intent is very important and needs to be considered when evaluating an action or comparing similar actions by different actors.  To do otherwise does a grave disservice to all involved and is intellectually and morally dishonest.