From this perspective, in which war is an elemental struggle between peoples rather than a kind of knightly duel between courtly elites, the concept of proportionality seems much less compelling. Certainly if some kind of terrorist organization were to set up missile factories across the frontier in Canada and Mexico and start attacking targets in the United States, the American people would demand that their president use all necessary force without stint or limit until the resistance had been completely, utterly and pitilessly crushed.
Those Americans who share this view of war might feel sorrow at the loss of innocent life, of the children and non-combatants killed when overwhelming American power was used to take the terrorists out, but they would feel no moral guilt. The guilt would be on the shoulders of those who started the whole thing by launching the missiles.
Thus when television cameras show the bodies of children killed in an Israeli air raid, Jacksonian Americans are sorry about the loss of life, but it inspires them to hate and loathe Hamas more, rather than to be mad at Israel. They blame the irresponsible dolts who started the war for all the consequences of the war and they admire Israel’s strength and its resolve for dealing with the appalling blood lust of the unhinged loons who start a war they can’t win, and then cower behind the corpses of the children their foolishness has killed.
The whole situation strengthens the widespread American belief that Palestinian hate rather than Israeli intransigence is the fundamental reason for the Middle East impasse, and the television pictures that drive much of the world away from Israel often have the effect of strengthening the bonds between Americans and the Jewish state.
This automatic Jacksonian response to the Middle East situation overlooks some important complexities in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in the past America’s Jacksonian instincts have gotten us into trouble. But anyone trying to analyze the politics of the Middle East struggle as they unfold in American debates needs to be aware of the power of these ideas about war in American life.
In any case, when Israel brings the big guns and fast planes against Gaza’s popguns and low-tech missiles, a great many Americans see nothing but common sense at work. These Americans aren’t mad about “disproportionate” Israeli violence in Gaza because they don’t really accept the concept of proportionality in war. They think that if you have jus ad bellum, and rocket strikes from Gaza are definitely that, you get something close to a blank check when it comes to jus in bello.
If anything, rather than weakening American sympathy for Israel, Israel’s response in Gaza (and the global criticism that surrounds it) is likely to strengthen the bonds of respect and esteem that many Americans feel for Israelis.
Far from seeing Israel’s use of overwhelming force against limited provocation as harsh or immoral, many Americans see it as courageous and wise. It strengthens the sense that in a wacky world where a lot of foreigners are hard to understand, the Israelis are honest, competent and reliable friends – good people to have on your side in a tight spot.Walter Russell Mead
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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