US President Trump’s recent interview on Fox with Bill O’Reilly has provoked anger in the US, with US politicians and commentators rounding on President Trump for appearing to put the US on the same level as Russia.
To an outsider what the episode reveals is the extent to which ‘exceptionalist’ thinking in the US has become mainstream so that even President Trump’s statement of the obvious – that the US “has killers too” – is now taken as an unpardonable act of lèse-majesté.
Putting that aside, on any objective assessment the reality is that since the death of Stalin the US has killed far more people than Russia has done.
During the Cold War the USSR intervened just three times in eastern Europe.
The USSR sent fighter pilots to fight in the Korean War and during the 1970 War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt, and it also sent air defence specialists to Egypt and Vietnam during the wars there, and to Cuba. However these people were engaged in air defence tasks, trying to protect civilians, not kill them.
The USSR also intervened to help the government of Angola defeat an insurgency backed by the South African apartheid regime, and to resist repeated South African invasions of the country. Most people today would say it was right to do so.
The USSR also sent troops to Afghanistan in 1979. The US was however a party to that conflict, having partly instigated it.
Since the fall of the USSR Russia has fought a bitter war on its own territory in the north Caucasus against Jihadi insurgents, which however it successfully ended with a peace settlement.
It also successfully defeated Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia in 2008 in a brief five day war.
The events in Crimea in 2014 were practically bloodless, whilst in the conflict in eastern Ukraine Russia is not directly engaged but has on the contrary repeatedly sought a peace settlement, which the Ukrainian regime however has spurned. It is the Ukrainian regime – not Russia – which appear to be carrying out targeted assassinations of its opponents.
Since 2015 Russia has also intervened in support of the legitimate government of Syria to defeat violent Jihadi terrorists who are also the declared enemies of the US. In that conflict too the Russians are now trying to broker a peace settlement, whilst President Trump is now floating the possibility of Russia and the US fighting Jihadi terrorists together.
All these interventions are dwarfed by the number and scale of the US’s wars: in Korea, in Vietnam, against Yugoslavia, in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, and in many other places, the combined death toll of which is uncounted but which certainly runs into millions.
The US has also supported insurgents and terrorists fighting legitimate governments in Nicaragua, Afghanistan and Syria. It has invaded and overthrown the governments of the Dominican Republic, Grenada and Panama. It has helped organise so-called ‘death squads’ in Vietnam, El Salvador and (after the invasion) in Iraq, and almost certainly in Colombia as well.
During the Cold War the US has supported, and in some places orchestrated, repression in Spain, Portugal, Turkey and Greece (all NATO member states), and in Latin America and Indonesia. The numbers of people tortured, imprisoned and killed in US backed repressions in these countries dwarfed anything done by the USSR during the same period.
During the time of the so-called “War on Terror” the US also openly practised torture, using the euphemism “advanced interrogation techniques” in order to justify it. Moreover it did so in a way that implicated some of its NATO allies in the practice, which it also farmed out to certain of its other allies.
The US also routinely kidnapped people and detained them without trial – calling the practice ‘extraordinary rendition’ – often holding the people it had kidnapped in so-called ‘black sites’ without telling their relatives where they were. It still detains people without trial in the prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, despite President Obama’s promises to close the camp down.
The US now also runs an active worldwide assassination programme – something which Russia has never done – with fleets of drones sent all over the world to murder people – including US citizens – without trial.
Bill O’Reilly’s question to President Trump is especially remarkable since there is no proof that any single individual has ever been killed because President Putin has ordered his or her death. By contrast US President Obama personally selected individuals to be killed in US drone strikes, which are estimated to have killed thousands.
In terms of domestic policy the difference between the US and Russia is now also becoming striking.
Notwithstanding that (unlike the US) Russia has had to fight a war against Jihadi terrorism on its own territory, Russia has not executed anyone since 1996, and President Putin has repeatedly made known his strong personal opposition to the death penalty. Moreover the administration of Russia’s criminal law – including in the war zone of the northern Caucasus – is subject to judicial oversight by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
The US by contrast not only continues to execute people, but instead of subjecting its criminal justice system to the oversight of any international court or tribunal, on the contrary insists that it is own courts which have a worldwide universal jurisdiction.
In setting out these comparisons in no sense do I say that Russia or Russians are innocent or perfect. Not only does the record I have set out says otherwise, but Russians are themselves the sternest critics of their own practices – both their past practices and their present ones – and it is not for an outsider like me to say they are better than they themselves say they are.
However the inability or refusal of some (not all) Americans to face up to the reality of what they do, and their habit of trying to shout down anyone who tries to tell them, does them and the world no favours.