It's all relative [Commentary]

Some things are binary. They either are or they aren't. You can't be sort of pregnant or partially certifiable; it's one or the other — like being a Yankees or a Red Sox fan.

Yet when it comes to international affairs, little is so cut-and-dried. Right and wrong are measured in degrees, and all high-minded principles are compromised. This is not necessarily evident during moments of global tension, though. On such occasions, which typically feature competing claims by antagonists with long standing historical grievances, complexity is swept aside, replaced by simplistic, easy-to-digest narratives of victim versus victimizer, virtue versus villainy.


Beware of such dumbed-down logic.

Take Ukraine. In the immediate aftermath of Russia's annexation of Crimea, indignant observers far and wide angrily denounced the country's treachery while lionizing Ukraine's newly formed government and the protesters who brought it to power.


Seldom was the contrast between wickedness and righteousness supposedly starker. Hillary Clinton even compared Vladimir Putin to Hitler, ominously implying that Ukraine's fate was like that of Czechoslovakia in 1938 when Nazi Germany seized the Sudetenland and that far worse was to come.

Yet recent events in Ukraine were not so straightforward. While the country's ousted leader Viktor Yanukovych was corrupt, he was also constitutionally elected, making his abrupt overthrow problematic, especially when elections at the time of his deposal were a mere 12 months off.

More problematic still, although Ukraine's constitution allows for the removal of the head of state, it does so only when the Constitutional Court reviews the case for impeachment and Parliament approves the initiative by a three-fourths majority.

Neither happened.

What did happen was a hastily organized impeachment vote in Parliament that produced a suspiciously lopsided outcome, with 328 of the body's 447 deputies voting in favor of Yanukovych's ouster (10 shy of the necessary supermajority), while the rest abstained.

And just who overthrew Mr. Yanukovych?

The revolution's shock troops were drawn from ultranationalist groups with fascist inclinations — the appearance of "Rebel" Confederate flags in Kiev's Maiden Square during the uprising was one of many troubling signs. The most prominent of them, the Svoboda ("Freedom") Party, has pro-Nazi roots.

Svoboda's leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, once decried Ukraine's domination by a "Muscovite-Jewish mafia" bent on committing "genocide" against the country's Christians, while his deputy, an admirer of the infamous Nazi propagandist,founded a think tank originally called "The Joseph Goebbels Political Research Center."


In 2012, the same year that an EU Parliament resolution called Svoboda xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic, the party won 10 percent of the vote in national elections, and fully 40 percent in parts of western Ukraine. More recently, upon Yanukovych's impeachment, Svoboda was awarded with four ministerial portfolios, several governorships and the prosecutor general's office.

None of this justified Russia's aggression, of course, but neither should it be ignored. Context matters.

The same goes for discussion about other global hot spots, including Syria, where the three-year-old civil war has killed 150,000 and made refugees of millions. Here again the conflict is often framed in simplistic terms, with Syrian President Bashar Assad cast as a brutal tyrant and his armed opponents as noble and heroic.

The narrative is only half-right: Mr. Assad is a vile despot, but those fighting him defy easy characterization. The fractured alliance comprises an estimated 1,500 groups, many of which are indeed commendable. Others, such as the al-Qaida-associated al-Nusra Front, are decidedly not.

One recent study by IHS Jane's, a defense consultancy, found that nearly half of the 100,000 rebel fighters in Syria are aligned with jihadist or hard line Islamic groups.

Yet too often Syria's complex landscape is overlooked, particularly by hawks demanding greater U.S. involvement in the conflict.


Fortunately, the Obama administration has not adopted facile solutions to such a thorny challenge as Syria. Instead, it is has cautiously moved forward with arming Syria's rebels, providing calibrated lethal aid to vetted groups only.

All of the above is not a case for moral relativism. Sometimes right and wrong — or, more often, wrong and less wrong — are apparent in the international arena. We should not shy away from making such judgments when appropriate.

Rather, this is a case against moral absolutism. Look around the world, and you're apt to see conflicts featuring antagonists that are similarly compromised and complicit. This is true for two of the most grave, if underreported, crises at present — those in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, which involve warring parties and groups that stand accused of wantonly killing civilians.

The danger arises when, through blinkered eyes, we fail to recognize the international arena's complexity, preferring instead to rely on simplistic "either with us or against us" approximations that inevitably yield lousy outcomes when adopted as foreign policy.

Let's not forget those dangers now.

Jon Shifrin is a contractor at the U.S. Department of State, serving as a foreign affairs officer. Previously, he worked for Congress and at think tanks in Washington, D.C. and Europe. The views expressed here his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government. His email is


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