As Israeli air strikes and naval shells bombarded Gaza last week, the world asked the question that perennially frustrates, confuses and enrages so many people across the planet: Why aren’t the Americans hating on Israel more?
As in Operation Cast Lead, the last big conflict between Israel and Hamas, and as during the operation against Hizbullah in Lebanon, much of the world screams in outrage while America yawns.
If anything, many of Israel’s military operations are more popular and less controversial in the United States than they are in Israel itself. This time around, President Obama and his administration issued one statement after another in support of Israel’s right to self-defense, and both houses of Congress passed resolutions in support of Jerusalem’s response.
Commentators around the world grasp at straws in seeking to explain what’s going on. Islamophobia and racism, say some. Americans just don’t care about Arab deaths and they are so blinded by their fear of Islam that they can’t see the simple realities of the conflict on the ground.
Others allege that a sinister Jewish lobby controls the media and the political system through the vast power of Jewish money; the poor ignorant Americans are the helpless pawns of clever Jews.
Still others suggest that it is fanatical Christian fundamentalists with their carry-on flight bags packed for the Rapture who are behind American blindness to Israel’s crimes.
America is a big country with a lot of things going on, but the real force driving American support for Israeli actions in Gaza isn’t Islamophobia, Jewish conspiracies or foam-flecked religious nuts. It’s something much simpler: many though not all Americans look at war through a distinctive cultural lens.
Readers of my book Special Providence know I’ve described four schools of American thinking about world affairs; from the perspective of the most widespread of them, the Jacksonians, what Israel is doing in Gaza makes perfect sense. Not only are many Jacksonians completely untroubled by Israel’s response to the rocket attacks in Gaza, many genuinely don’t understand why the rest of the world is so steamed about Israel – and so angry with the United States.
Americans as a people have never much believed in fighting by “the rules.” The Minutemen who fought the British regulars at Lexington and Concord in 1776 thought that there was nothing stupider in the world than to stand in even ranks and brightly colored uniforms waiting to shoot and be shot like gentlemen. They hid behind stone walls and trees, wearing clothes that blended in with their surroundings, and took potshots at the British wherever they could.
George Washington saved the Revolution by a surprise attack on British forces the night before Christmas; far from being ashamed of an attack no European general of the day would have countenanced, Americans turned a painting of the attack (“Washington Crossing the Delaware”) into a patriotic icon. In America, war is not a sport.
Theoreticians of “just war” say that in order for war to be justifiable, two tests must be met. You have to have a legitimate cause for war (self-defense, for example, rather than grabbing land from a weaker neighbor) and you must fight the war in the right way. You must fight fair (that is, fight a just war), and you must fight nice.
One of the criteria for jus in bello (fighting nice as opposed to jus ad bellum, which is about whether it’s just) is proportionality. If the other guy comes at you with a stick, you can’t pull a knife. If he’s got a knife, you can’t pull a gun. If he burned your barn, you can’t nuke his capital. Your use of force must be proportionate to the cause and to the danger.
Israel’s fiercer critics attack it for fighting unjust wars against the Palestinians. For some, Zionism itself is an illegitimate idea, and a state that has no right to exist has no right to defend itself. Anything it does to defend itself is a crime. This is how Hamas and many others think and it is why people in this camp are able to work themselves up into such a froth of indignation and rage when Israel responds to their fire.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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