For others, Israel may have a right to exist, but its occupation of the West Bank and other crimes against the Palestinians have deprived it of just grounds for war when Palestinians attack it. People in this camp attack any use of force by Israel as lacking jus ad bellum, basically because they think Israel has forfeited its jus by its occupation and settlement policy. This is where a lot of the non-Muslim European left comes out and it is why they are so quick to attack Israel for a war which, after all, was triggered by rockets from Gaza landing in Israel.
But more moderate critics of Israel (including many Israelis) focus on jus in bello, and in particular they look at the question of proportionality. When the Palestinians flick a handful of fairly crude rockets at random across Israel, these critics say, Israel has a right to a kind of pinprick response: tit for tat. But it isn’t entitled to bring the full power of its industrial grade air force and its mighty ground forces into an operation designed to crush Hamas at the cost of hundreds of civilian casualties. You can’t fight slingshots with tanks.
For many people around the world, this seems patently obvious: Israel has a right to respond to attacks from Hamas but it doesn’t have an unlimited right to respond to limited attacks with unlimited force. Israeli blindness to this obvious moral principle strikes many observers as evidence of hardheartedness and national moral decline, and colors their perceptions of many other Israeli policies.
The whole jus in bello argument sails right over the heads of most Americans. The proportionality concept never went over that big here. Many Americans are instinctive Clausewitzians; Clausewitz argued that efforts to make war less cruel end up making it worse, and a lot of Americans agree.
Many Americans consider the classic concept of proportionality – that the violence used must be proportional to the end sought – as meaningless when responding to attacks on the lives of citizens because the protection of citizens from armed and planned attacks is of enough importance to justify any steps taken to ensure that the attacks end.
From this perspective, the kind of tit-for-tat limited warfare that the advocates of just and proportionate warfare would require is a recipe for unending war: for decades of random air strikes, bombs and other raids. An endless war of limited intensity is worse, many Americans instinctively feel, than a time-limited war of unlimited ferocity. A crushing blow that brings an end to the war – like General Sherman’s march of destruction through the Confederacy in 1864-65 – is ultimately kinder even to the vanquished than an endless state of desultory war.
The European just war tradition springs in part from the reality that historically in Europe war was an affair of kings and rulers that hurt the little people without doing anything for them. Peasants really didn’t care whether the Duke of Burgundy or the Count of Anjou was recognized as the rightful overlord of their village, and moralists and theologians worked to limit the violence that the dukes and the counts and their henchmen wreaked on the poor peasants caught up in a quarrel that wasn’t theirs.
With no feudal past in this country, Americans have tended to see wars as wars of peoples rather than wars of elites and in a war of peoples the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate targets tends to collapse.
The German civilian (male or female) making weapons for Hitler’s Wehrmacht was as much a part of the enemy’s war-making potential as the soldier at the front. Furthermore, in a war of peoples in which civilians are implicated in the conflict, the health and morale of the civilian population is a legitimate target of war. This justified the blockades against the Confederacy and against Germany and German-occupied Europe during the world wars, and it also justified the mass terror bombing raids of World War II in which the destruction of enemy morale was one of the stated aims.
This is the same logic by which someone like Osama bin Laden could justify his attacks on civilians at the World Trade Center, and it is the fundamental logic behind Hamas’s indiscriminate attacks on Israeli civilian targets. Americans don’t like it when their enemies use this kind of logic, but it is a type of warfare they understand and they have fought and won enough of these wars in the past to be ready if necessary to do it again.
About the Author: Walter Russell Mead is James Clarke Chace professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College. His blog, Via Meadia, appears at blogs.the-american-interest.com, where this essay was originally published.
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