'Moral equivalence' depends on what you compare
In an interview with Fox News host Bill O'Reilly aired just before last Sunday's Super Bowl, President Donald Trump replied to O'Reilly's characterization of Russian President Vladimir Putin as "a killer" with the offhand remark that "There are a lot of killers. We've got a lot of killers. What do you think - our country's so innocent?"
Mr. Trump's comment drew immediate fire from Democrats and Republicans alike, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, both of whom were at pains to reject any suggestion of "moral equivalence" between Putin andÖwhom or what, precisely?
"Well, Putin is a former KGB ... agent, he's a thug," McConnell told CNN's Jake Tapper. "He was not elected in a way that most people would consider a credible election."
"When has a Democratic political activists [sic] been poisoned by the GOP, or vice versa?" Rubio asked rhetorically. "We are not the same as Putin."
Well, that's fair enough, assuming the truth of the premises. There's certainly little similarity between our own democracy and the oligarchy that passes for one in Russia, although as one of my correspondents recently pointed out, having just elected a billionaire, some might mistake us for an oligarchy ourselves.
Still more is that true given the exploding inequality of wealth in America during the past quarter century and its allegedly enlarged influence on both the staffing and conduct of government.
But America's and Russia's respective political arrangements almost certainly aren't what Mr. Trump had in mind. Instead, to get to the root of the moral equivalence issue reflected in Mr. Trump's comment, we need to go a little further into the interview:
O'Reilly: "I don't know of any [U.S.] government leaders that are killers."
Trump: "Well - take a look at what we've done too. We made a lot of mistakes. I've been against the war in Iraq from the beginning."
O'Reilly: "But mistakes are different than -"
Trump: "A lot of mistakes, but a lot of people were killed. A lot of killers around, believe me."
There certainly are. In fact, when we shift the focus from America's and Russia's electoral processes and/or the personal histories of their recent leaders to their respective international behaviors, the question of moral equivalence begins to get very murky indeed.
To understand that, one need only compare how many noncombatant deaths the two countries have managed to inflict, intentionally or otherwise, since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1990.
We've no hard number for Putin's Russia, although the number of civilians in Syria alone killed directly or indirectly by Russian military action are estimated at around 4,000. Civilian deaths during Russia's post-Soviet conflicts in the Caucasus and Central Asia probably exceeded 100,000.
For the U.S. and our allies, we may have better data. In March, 2015, the Washington, DC-based Physicians for Social Responsibility (PRS) released a study computing the civilian death toll after 10 years of the "War on Terror" at well over a million.
Other estimates including the U.S. military's are lower. But it's significant that the PRS study looked only at Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and only as of 2015. Omitted entirely were civilian deaths in Libya, Somalia, and East Africa, and more recent fatalities in Syria and Yemen.
To top it off, this week a Military Times investigation disclosed that the U.S. military has failed to report thousands of lethal airstrikes conducted over several years in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. "In 2016 alone," the investigation revealed, "U.S. combat aircraft conducted at least 456 airstrikes in Afghanistan that were not recorded."
Of course, unlike the case for Putin's Russia, the motives resulting in those unfortunate casualties were pure, right? They reflected no gratuitous military interventions on our part, but merely the legitimate exercise of self-defense against a world chock-a-block with terrorists. Oh - and support of the odd popular rebellion against dictators other than those of whom we approved.
Even so, it's fair to say that orders given or at least certified by Mr. Trump's recent predecessors almost certainly have killed a whole lot more innocents than those for whose deaths Mr. Putin is responsible.
More is at issue here than simply a snarky comparison. Americans have a bad habit, in foreign as in domestic policy, of judging the morality of government's behavior by its benevolent intentions without regard for its possible consequences.
"Let justice be done though the heavens fall" is a legal adage ascribed to an ancient Roman governor. It might also describe recent U.S. foreign policy, which, whatever its well-intended aims, too often has had anything but benign results for its hapless beneficiaries.
Mr. Trump's remarks often are boorish and his claims often are nonsense. But in this particular case, he may have been more perceptive than his critics.