Andrew Sullivan and Walter Mead are Just Wrong on Israel

Someone showed us this blog post by Walter Russell Mead on Israel a few days ago. We responded to it in private, but we decided not to post on it because… well, because we were lazy. But now that Andrew Sullivan has waded into the mess, calling Israel’s policy toward Palestinians a “barbaric doctrine of creating ‘deterrence’ by mass murder and a stifling blockade,” we feel compelled to rise from our collective tuchus. Though we frequently disagree with Mr. Sullivan, he’s usually pretty well-reasoned. His thoughts on Israel, however, seem, to us, painfully out of touch with reason.

Mead’s post purports to address the question of why Americans tend to fully support Israel in Arab/Israeli conflicts, while the world — and here Mead means Europe — seems a bit more willing to see the Palestinian/Arab side. The post is interesting throughout; we recommend reading it and therefore won’t summarize it. We enjoyed its presentation of various philosophical theories of justice in war. But we were pretty appalled at Mead’s failure to connect those theories to the reality of Israeli conduct and America’s regard for such.

Mead concludes that many Americans and Israelis just don’t give a fig about “jus in bello.” Jus in bello is fighting in a “just” or fair way, and it contrasts with “jus ad bellum,” which is having a just cause for war and has nothing to do with one’s conduct during war. Mead concludes that American support for Israel’s conduct is caused by an implicit “Jacksonian” philosophy of war: that jus in bello simply doesn’t matter if the cause of war is just. Mead focuses on the consideration of proportionality, noting that while Hamas and other factions lob low-grade rockets into Israel, Israel responds with — as he characterizes it — overwhelming force.

There are a lot of holes in this train of thought.

First, Palestinian attacks against Israel are not small because of self-imposed limitations. Palestinian attacks are limited solely by ability, availability of resources, and fear of Israeli response. If Palestinians could use more powerful weapons against Israeli civilians, they would. Thus, to equate Palestinian “proportionality” to limited attacks by forces with more resources is to mischaracterize the very nature of Palestinian aggression. Moreover, the actual situation in Israel makes overwhelming Israeli response crucial as a deterrent to more (and more destructive) Palestinian attacks. That factor simply doesn’t exist in discussions of “proportionality” between roughly equal forces, such as the European monarchies Mead discusses.

Moreover, what kind of proportionality would Mead — or the “moderate” critics of Israel for whom he claims to speak — prefer? Would he prefer that Israel respond by launching thousands of rockets at Palestinian civilian centers? In what sense is that better than surgical strikes against known terrorists, artillery sites, and munition caches? That’s clearly more “proportional” than the attacks he criticizes as lacking jus in bello. Somehow, we suspect he wouldn’t be a fan. Perhaps those critics would prefer that Israel conduct the same types of sorties it performs now, just on a lower scale. But what end is achieved by leaving Hamas with leaders, fighters, and munitions still ready and willing to attack Israeli civilians? How would such conduct conform to Israeli elected representatives’ duty to protect Israeli citizens?

Mead repeatedly characterizes Israeli responses as devoid of considerations of jus in bello; proportionality seems to be but one example. That is factually absurd. No nation in history has taken the steps that Israel has taken to avoid civilian casualties among its enemy. Israel’s steps are near lunacy when you consider that (a) Palestinian civilians in Gaza tend to deeply support the eliminationist ideology of Hamas, and (b) Hamas uses human shields as a matter of course. (See Israeli soldiers and pilots discuss those steps and their attendant moral conundrums here.) One might argue that Israeli use of force is actually crippled by Israeli concern for jus in bello. Yet somehow Mead summarily concludes that Israel doesn’t think jus in bello is even a legitimate concept. That’s crazy.

Third, we believe Mead is giving far too much intellectual credit to European criticism of Israel. Is it possible that some are truly bothered by his high-minded concerns about jus in bello? Yeah, it’s possible. But we’ve read a lot of European news and opinion from Israel, and we haven’t seen it. We see fear and appeasement, not an internally consistent point of view. We see Antisemitism and factual ignorance, gross misrepresentation, and deep-seeded bias. To our minds, almost all of that is motivated simply by fear. Putting aside Europe’s own Antisemitic underbelly, we attribute Europe’s anti-Israel sentiment to a fear of reprisal from the fairly radical, large, and culturally isolated Muslim immigrant population that Europeans have to see on the streets of their cities every day. These days, it’s pretty easy to have Stockholm syndrome in Stockholm… because jihad is being waged in Stockholm. Imagine living with that creeping fear and having no meaningful connection to Jews. Why on earth would you stick your neck out to side with a bunch of harmless Jews thousands of miles away who inserted themselves into a fight with hundreds of millions of Muslims for reasons you don’t understand? Admit it: you wouldn’t.

Finally, we guess we agree with a lot of the sentiment that Mead characterizes as “American.” But that argument is a bit more nuanced – and correct – than he admits. Of course there is some concept of jus in bello. Given the history of American warfare, it makes no sense to say that most Americans would disagree with that. If we hasn’t cared about jus in bello, the bombing of Dresden wouldn’t even stand out in our national memory. If we didn’t care about jus in bello, we would have wiped the civilian populations of Afghanistan and Iraq off the map in response to their (perceived) aggression/threat. But we didn’t do that… or anything close. Instead, we spent billions of dollars and thousands of American lives and psyches to avoid that. In general, American conduct during most of its wars (wars against Native Americans being notable exceptions) adhered to fairly strict requirements of jus in bello.

We would characterize the American argument as this: if I, a military or civilian leader, obey principles of jus in bello while my enemy does not, I am being totally unjust to my own civilians and soldiers. Those civilians and soldiers are the people to whom I owe the most direct duty of protection. There is clearly a point at which affording the enemy an unrequited courtesy is insane. And both Israelis and Americans are well within that boundary. Just as Israeli soldiers and pilots frequently cancel attacks to protect Palestinian civilians, American soldiers, sailors, and Marines frequently die because of our choice to, say, patrol a hostile Afghan village instead of bombing it to dust.
When I (Masonides) was but a stripling, I used to read car magazines. I remember a situation in which one magazine revealed pictures of a new Corvette design ahead of the agreed-upon release date. This broke a promise all the magazine publishers had collectively made to Chevy. The editorial board of a competing magazine discussed the situation in the following month’s issue, in which it also printed pictures of the new ‘vette, still ahead of the promised release date. The board had a good line about breaking agreements:
“We won’t be the first… but we won’t be the third, either.”
That sounds about right to us.

Neither Israeli combat methods nor American support of Israel reflect a lack of concern for jus in bello. Andrew Sullivan has it wrong: the barbarism is on the other side of the fence, where Gazans elected terrorists as their leaders — show us a single sign of Hamas concern about proportionality or Israeli civilian casualties! Rather, most Israelis and Americans understand that the ethical validity of a military tactic is determined by mutual agreement and, in this case, the necessity of repelling an attacker that is not constrained by any cognizable form of wartime ethics.

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