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U.S. Media Correctly Cynical About Putin’s “Denazification” Pretext, Still Credulous About America's “Human Rights” and “Democracy” Pretexts
U.S. media outlets' reflexive dismissal of Putin’s hypocritical, self-serving claims he's “denazifying” Ukraine shows they can be skeptical of motives when they want to be.
On the eve of his February 24 incursion into Ukraine, Russian president Vladimir Putin made many justifications for the invasion, ranging from NATO encirclement; pre-Soviet imperial claims Ukrainians are a fake people and their nation was invented, in part, by Vladimir Lenin; and a purported concern about neo-nazis is Ukraine. All of these justifications, specifically Putin’s alleged concern about neo-nazis, were summarily dismissed in Western media, and the invasion was seen as little more than a power grab by a paranoid autocrat attempting to maintain his grip on power and energy dominance in central Europe:
New York Times: Why Vladimir Putin Invokes Nazis to Justify His Invasion of Ukraine. The article states, “The ‘Nazi’ slur’s sudden emergence shows how Mr. Putin is trying to use stereotypes, distorted reality and his country’s lingering World War II trauma to justify his invasion of Ukraine.”
In this unqualified and uniform cynicism, Western media was largely correct. Putin's “denazification” reason for his war didn’t pass the sniff test. It’s ahistorical, oversimplified, hypocritical, and transparently self-serving. Put simply: It’s a bullshit reason and everyone could see it was bullshit.
Finally, American media was not taking nominal reasons as actual ones, and using a skeptical eye about the nature of war-making—understanding that throughout history, the military needs of elites come first, and the moral pretexts are reverse engineered around this, largely for the consumption of domestic media and public opinion.
Alas, as it turns out, this skeptical eye can only gaze eastward.
One topic I’ve written about for years is American media’s nonstop (and no doubt, feigned) credulity when it comes to accepting American imperialism’s moral window dressing at face value. So it’s been a bizarre few weeks watching this same media adopt a skeptical and materialist posture with respect to Russia after largely refusing for decades to do so when it came to American leaders’ own lofty pretensions about the civilizing mission of American foreign policy.
Let’s take a look at two recent New York Times articles I wrote about earlier this month: One ostensibly straight report in which Dave Philipps insisted the U.S. was “trying to spread democracy” in Iraq and Afghanistan. And another reporter, Damien Dave, took to the “news analysis” section to wax poetic, lamenting the end of the so-called “post-war” “liberal, rules-based order,” repeatedly insisting the U.S. has an ideological and moral commitment to promoting global peace and stability. It’s unclear where the 3 million dead Vietnamese, half-dozen Latin American coups, unilateral invasion of Iraq, support for ethnic cleansing in Palestine, or global “war on terror” assassination regime fit into this “rules-based order” but presumably this is a discussion for another time.
These wide-eyed missives aren’t unique phenomena. Examples of U.S. media unironically adopting, at face value, America’s supposed lofty moral goals when it comes to its post-World War II meddling, coups, bombings, and invasions are too many to count. Just sticking to the New York Times, in 2017 the editorial board wrote that “in recent decades, American presidents who took military action have been driven by the desire to promote freedom and democracy.” Nominally straight news reporter Mark Landler made the absurd claim the same year that, “Mr. Trump has transformed the world’s view of the United States from a reliable anchor of the liberal, rules-based international order into something more inward-looking and unpredictable. That is a seminal change from the role the country has played for 70 years, under presidents from both parties.” Also in 2017, the Times editorial board made the even more manifestly outrageous assertion that Trump, “recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and moving the embassy from Tel Aviv, swept aside 70 years of American neutrality.” “American neutrality” in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is likely news to the Palestinians suffering from 70 years of occupation and killing the U.S. pumped $3 billion a year in military aid into for years on end.
It’s not just the New York Times. Examples also include the moral preening of American reporters about the “liberal” “human rights” motives of U.S. officials upon the exit from Afghanistan:
The nominal reporters lamenting Madeline Albright’s passing as a loss for “freedom lovers”:
Examples of American reporters mindlessly buying into the ideological premise that the U.S. is a “force of liberalism and democracy” are too many to count. Yet there remains about as much evidence that America’s post-war imperial buildup—its 800 military bases, countless coups, dozens of invasions, and brutal sanctions regimes—are animated by a concern for “spreading democracy” or a love of a “liberal, rules-based order” as there is that Putin’s invasion is motivated by a deep concern about neo-nazi elements in Ukraine. Yet, one pretext is repeatedly, and without irony, accepted by our media, and one is dismissed.
None of this is to say that Ukraine doesn’t, indeed, have a problem with neo-nazis in its military ranks, as many mainstream analyses have been noting for years. The issue is whether or not their existence in any way justifies the invasion (it, of course, does not) or in any universe is a genuine motivation behind the invasion (it, of course, is not). One would have to have the gullibility of a child to think that Putin—who routinely backs far-right elements in Europe and the U.S.—actually cares about combating neo-nazism as such.
Indeed, when reporters noted Putin’s own selective embrace of the far-right to undermine his moral claim of fighting neo-nazis, no one called this “whataboutism.” Because noting glaring hypocrisy is a perfectly reasonable thing to do when attempting to suss out motives. Just as noting that the U.S. actively supports apartheid in Israel and the Saudi-led mass killing in Yemen means its government doesn’t have any interest in a “liberal, rules-based order” is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Previous and concurrent actions speak to current motives, and noting this isn’t “whataboutism”—it’s common moral sense.
So why does this obvious and basic posture of skepticism disappear when it comes to U.S. leaders droning on about a “rules-based order” or “liberal values” or “rule of law”? Why are these pretexts not only not meaningfully examined, but endorsed and promoted? America’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows U.S. media outlets have both the intellectual and editorial capacity to question nominal motives: They just don’t have the political will or incentive. As institutions, they are heavily invested in America’s own self-serving mythologies that justify U.S. military buildup, meddling, coups, sanctions, and bombings. Thus, we will never get this type of widespread, unqualified skepticism about our own leaders—only for those they oppose.