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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Israel and the "proportionality" canard 


Once again we are hearing that Israel's response to aggression is not "proportionate," as if this were a bad thing. Even smart and reasonable lefty bloggers are complaining about this, never mind the knee-jerkers. Ezra Klein:

There is nothing proportionate in this response. No way to fit it into a larger strategy that leads towards eventual peace. No way to fool ourselves into believing that it will reduce bloodshed and stop terrorist attacks. It is simple vengeance. There's a saying in the Jewish community: "Israel, right or wrong." But sometimes Israel is simply wrong.

There are two responses to this, one legal and the other geopolitical. First, the legal response from Ramesh Ponnuru:
The traditional just-war standard is that military action should be "proportionate" in that it causes fewer harms than it seeks to prevent. That's a sane and sound moral standard. It does not mean that military means must inflict only as much pain as the enemy has inflicted.

Now, you might argue that because Hamas has been recently ineffective at killing Israelis, the current assault is in fact inflicting more harm than it seeks to prevent. That logic is highly suspect; the point is not to prevent minor harms, but much bloodier future attacks that will no doubt occur if Hamas is not both interdicted and deterred, of which more below.

More on the legal arcana from Andy McCarthy here.

The geopolitical argument ought to be more persuasive than the legal to liberals, who no doubt wish we would join the community of nations and sign Protocol 1. Massive, militarily disproportionate retaliation is the cornerstone of deterrence, and without it there would be more war, not less. During 2006's Hezbollah war I wrote this post, which remains sadly germane to the present fighting with Hamas:
The left claims that the powerful states of the world, especially the United States and Israel, need not fear for their security because they can use their military power to deter aggression. To a post-Cold War lefty, the magic of deterrance supposedly obviates the need to intervene preemptively, or to remove regimes that commit "petty" acts of war against us or even declare themselves to be our enemy. See, e.g., the most frequently offered reasons why we should not have removed Saddam, or should not consider military options to deal with Iran. We can, after all, obliterate any power that actually attacks us, so why worry?

What your basic anti-defense lefty does not admit, however, is that effective deterrance requires not only the capability to retaliate, but that the threat to retaliate be credible. The former without the latter is worthless.

The requirement that retaliation be proportional reather than "massive" destroys the credibility of the threat to retaliate and therefore the effectiveness of the deterrance. Why? Because it allows the attacker to determine the price he will pay for launching the attack. If the attacker knows that he can absorb a blow equal to the one he delivers, then he will not be concerned that the defender has the capability to retaliate massively.

This is like limiting the penalty for property crimes to restitution. Why not rob the bank? If you're caught, you only have to give the money back.

The advocates of "proportionality", therefore, are undermining the effectiveness of threatened massive retaliation as a means for preventing war. If the left succeeds in promoting this ridiculous idea as a new norm of international behavior or requirement of international law, it will have destroyed the effectiveness of deterrance, the one means that we know reliably prevents war in the first place. Surely this is not what the left and the Europeans hope to accomplish.

No less an expert than Dwight Eisenhower institutionalized massive retaliation as the official policy of the United States. This was wise, for there was no other plausible way to deter the use of nuclear weapons. And it worked. "Proportionality" as it is now used by the chatterers criticizing Israel today is nothing more than a prescription for endless war.

Ezra, over to you.

MORE: Related thoughts here and here.

13 Comments:

By Anonymous JSF, at Wed Dec 31, 10:02:00 AM:

Proportionality aside, ANY response Israel decides to take seems to be taken as criminal, not only by the Islamic community, but by Leftists as well. Interesting how those two factions (Islamic Jihadists and the American Left)seem to be on the same page so often.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Dec 31, 11:14:00 AM:

The IDF seizing Bermuda or Fiji would be disproportionate. Anything on the way, though . . .  

By Anonymous Eric Martincich, at Wed Dec 31, 11:25:00 AM:

I'll go with George Steinbrenner's view of "proportionality."  

By Anonymous Will, at Wed Dec 31, 11:35:00 AM:

I think this is a false distinction. If you support Israeli strikes as an effective deterrent, you presumably believe that such action reduces violence over the long term by curtailing Hamas's offensive capabilities. If, on the other hand, you think Israeli military retaliation is "disproportionate," it's because you believe military action a) incurs substantial civilian casualties and b) is unlikely to deter or destroy Hamas. This strikes me as a straightforward empirical question, not a dispute over first principles.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Wed Dec 31, 12:32:00 PM:

"If you support Israeli strikes as an effective deterrent, you presumably believe that such action reduces violence over the long term by curtailing Hamas's offensive capabilities."

That is not deterrence. Deterrence is convincing the other guy not to do the thing he wants to do because the consequences are unacceptable to him. Actually destroying his capability to cause harm is not the point.

"If, on the other hand, you think Israeli military retaliation is "disproportionate," it's because you believe military action a) incurs substantial civilian casualties"

Which is wholly irrational. Hamas's entire goal is to cause Israeli civilian casualties. That's why they fire rockets into neighborhoods every other day. So an honestly 'proportional' response would be an Israeli bombardment of Gaza neighborhoods, perhaps with Katyushas.

"and b) is unlikely to deter or destroy Hamas."

i.e. Fighting back won't work, just let your people die?

Just because I thought about it, here's a little secret about the Palestinians. Up to probably 3/4 of their 'civilian casualties' in any particular event are not. They are simply non-uniformed operatives. Ever see the movie Rules of Engagement with Samuel Jackson? Like that. Hide the weapons or official insignia, take pictures. Voila, instant civilian casualties.

Pay close attention to international reports sometime. A lot of them say things like, "143 civilian casualties, including women and children." Tragic, right? But think about it. That's worded kinda funny, isn't it? 143 is a specific number... why didn't they break it down more?

That's because the numbers are actually something like '139 operatives in civilian clothes (or police, who Hamas likes to count as 'civilians' even though they do things like transport weapons, money, and supplies and hunt down foreign or Fatah agents on behalf of Hamas) and the wife and three children of Hamas commander X who happened to be visiting his office at the time it exploded.'  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Dec 31, 01:31:00 PM:

Why do these rabidly Zionist writers never mention that "proportionate response" comes from Just War Theory?
Could it be to hide your KKK-class bigotry? Eh, could be ...  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Wed Dec 31, 03:24:00 PM:

Maybe interesting: In my years in the military and academic study of government, I've never met anyone or read any treatise which gave a rat's ass about 'Just War Theory.' It only seems to be rolled out by anti-war agitators or factions who like to pretend that it's important so they can claim that 'military intervention X' doesn't meet such and such criteria and is therefore immoral.  

By Blogger Ronnie Schreiber, at Wed Dec 31, 05:41:00 PM:

There's a saying in the Jewish community: "Israel, right or wrong."

Ezra Klein is just making that up. I'm 54 years old and have been a Zionist my entire life. I've never heard this "saying", even on the extreme Jewish right wing. Hell, R' Meir Kahane, may God avenge his blood (he was the Bin Laden network's first victim in the US), was open in his criticism of Israeli policies.

Klein is just trying to evoke the image of Archie Bunker and "my country right or wrong". It's not a red herring, nor a straw man, it's a lie. Klein is just wearing his circumcision on his left sleeve, using his Jewish heritage as a credential.

I'd be willing to bet that Klein's an ignoramus about Judaism.  

By Blogger joated, at Wed Dec 31, 08:10:00 PM:

Screw "proportionality"!

The proper response is to hit your opponent hard and hit 'em again and again and again until it is absolutely impossible for them to ever hit you. To stop any time short of that objective is poor planning.  

By Anonymous Boludo Tejano, at Wed Dec 31, 08:36:00 PM:

@Dawnfire82:

Pay close attention to international reports sometime. A lot of them say things like, "143 civilian casualties, including women and children." Tragic, right? But think about it. That's worded kinda funny, isn't it? 143 is a specific number... why didn't they break it down more?


Bulls eye , Dawnfire82. Consider the “Jenin massacre,” where the Palestinians claimed 400-500 were killed.

From the European Union report to the UN Secretary General, part of the overall UN report:

The number of Palestinian fatalities, on the basis of bodies recovered to date, in Jenin and the refugee camp in this military operation can be estimated at around 55. Of those, a number were civilians, four were women and two children. There were 23 Israeli fatalities in the fighting operations in Jenin.

BTW, Wikipedia again shows that its reputation for being unable to present controversial incidents without bias is a well deserved one.

The final death toll was confirmed at from 52 to 56 Palestinians – anywhere between 5 and 26 of whom were estimated to have been civilians – while 23 IDF soldiers were killed as well.

Note that this information is taken from the same UN report from which I lifted the EU report to the Secretary General.

The EU statement from the UN report gives a more accurate statement, as sex and age is noted. It is doubtful that if only six women and children were killed, who will be assumed to be noncombatants, that a substantial proportion of the 49 adult males were also noncombatants. As there were only six dead women and children, I would estimate that there were only six dead adult male noncombatants.

Conclusion: most of the time, most of those whom Israel kills are combatants. I would like to know why very few US and European journalists ask the Palestinian spokespersons why they are so upset at Israelis killing noncombatants when the Palestinians rejoice at the death of Israeli noncombatants.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Dec 31, 09:34:00 PM:

@Anonymous 1:31

Why do these rabidly Zionist writers never mention that "proportionate response" comes from Just War Theory?

You don't know what you're talking about. In the context of Just War Theory, proportionality means something entirely different from the vernacular concept being used to criticize Israel.

Btw, I teach Just War Theory, and I'm appalled by those -- such as Pat Buchanan -- who know better and are disingenuous. I'm sure you're just ignorant.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Jan 01, 12:02:00 AM:

The reason that there is a disproportionate number o victims is the disproportinate behavior of Hamas(& Fatah) towards their civilians vs Israel and their civilians.

So i ask Mr.Ezra Klein to include in Israeli victims tally, those that were saved by timely warnings of the system that Israeli put in place, those hit and saved by an efficent communication systems, and that could reach and be saved by medical system.

I ask also to Mr.Ezra Klein to take out from Palestinians victims claims, those that were because Hamas fired or operated from near their homes, because made combat non-uniformed and the civilians deaths that occured because of that.

Finally i ask Mr.Ezra Klein to respect Geneva Conventions.
He appears to think that Hamas that doesn't respect any is right.

lucklucky  

By Blogger Dan Kauffman, at Thu Jan 01, 05:52:00 AM:

The Limits of 'Turn the Other Cheek'

In 1940, when Hitler was scoring victory after victory throughout Europe, Gandhi addressed the following advice to the soldiers of Great Britain: "I would like you to lay down the arms you have as being useless for saving you or humanity. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions.... If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourselves, man, woman, and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them."
Two years earlier, in the months before World War II began, Gandhi reacted to the outrage of the Nazi-inspired Kristalnacht (the national pogrom of November 9 to 10, 1938) by offering the following advice to German Jews for overcoming Nazi anti-Semitism: "I am as certain as I am dictating these words that the stoniest German heart will melt [if only the Jews] . adopt active nonviolence. Human nature ... unfailingly responds to the advances of love. I do not despair of his [Hitler's] responding to human suffering even though caused by him."

Needless to say, Jews were deeply pained by Gandhi's words, and the philosopher Martin Buber responded: "We did not proclaim, as did Jesus, the son of our people, and as you do, the teaching of nonviolence, because we believe that a man must sometimes use force to save himself or, even more, his children."  

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