Monday, December 29, 2008

The Foolish and the Evil

Though my own posts haven't been bad, I think the folks over at Lawyers, Guns, and Money have probably the best package of coverage regarding Israel's latest operation in Gaza. One of the things I think they've done effectively is avoid some of the easy traps that obscure efforts to actually evaluate what Israel's doing.

Trap #1, emanating from the left, is the "disproportionality" argument. In international law, disproportionality is a term of art: It does not instill an obligation to match your foe only rocket for rocket. Proportionality is not measured against the precipitating action of the enemy which sparked the conflict, it's measured against the military objective the state is attempting to achieve.

In the current situation, Israel responded to steady rocket fire from Gaza with a punishing air assault aimed at destroying the political and military leadership and manpower of Hamas. This is a legitimate military objective, albeit one clearly more far-reaching than Hamas' rocket fire. Nonetheless, so long as long as the military strikes are proportionate to the goal of the operation, proportionality is not breached. Most sources I've read indicate that Israel has done a stellar job in this instance minimizing civilian casualties -- most of the Gazans killed have been Hamas soldiers, policemen, or leaders. The attack was wide-ranging, but so was the mission. This is not a failure of proportionality, as the term is understood in international law. Of course, the technical legal definition of "proportionality" has nothing whatsoever to do with whether, all things considered, Israel's behavior is wise here. But the proportionality argument is mostly being deployed not as a strategic argument but a moral one -- attempting to allege Israel is a lawbreaker here. And that just isn't right.

Trap #2, flowing out of the right, is the "what does everyone else do?" argument. Most nations facing a persistent mid- to high-grade insurgency react with far more bloodlust than Israel is showing right now (Russia in Chechnya is the typical example). The story often is cast more personally -- how would the US respond to Mexican rockets falling on El Paso?

This obscures for the same reason the first trap does: it argues along the axis of why Israel shouldn't be seen as an evildoer, by comparing to other nation's facing the same dilemma. But this misses the point. The proper frame for looking at Israel's response isn't whether, in some cosmic sense, it is "justified" in attacking Gaza this way. The proper frame is asking "is this attack going to accomplish anything?" LGM's own military expert, Robert Farley, gives four reasons to be skeptical that anything good will come out of Israel's operation, while nonetheless noting that the operation itself has been quite discriminating and has done a good job minimizing civilian casualties. His arguments -- particularly the problems with "sending a message" -- make sense to me. We might still understand why the government is behaving "as expected", and we might affirm that, in terms of moral judgment, we shouldn't hold Israel morally liable for a super-obligation where other countries are given relatively free passes. But none of that requires us to answer in the affirmative the remaining (and to my mind, far more important question): Is Israel's response a smart one?

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons the contemporary discourse surrounding Israel/Palestine seems stuck on debating "right and wrong", instead "smart or stupid". Anti-Israel speakers are unsatisfied with the idea that the state is merely behaving unwisely -- they are insistent that it is a qualitatively evil regime that must be treated as such, even when such demands make it concretely less likely for the Palestinian people to receive their just due. Pro-Israel writers, responding to such rhetoric, devote their time to defending the moral appropriateness of any Israeli action, to the exclusion of any long-term considerations about whether it ends up helping or harming Israeli interests (not to mention the interests of a lasting peace and liberation of the Palestinian people from occupation). This is why I'm such a fan of J Street: They call for Israel to ceasefire, not because Kadima is now the Middle East's version of the Nazi Party -- but because, based on their considered judgment, they don't think that the operation actually gives Israel anything of substantial, long-term value, and instead simply entrenches the never-ending cycle of tit-for-tat that hasn't gotten anywhere for decades.

As I mentioned previously, the question of whether Israel is behaving unwisely wisely in this particular case is one that I am not qualified to answer (though Farley is, and he answers "no"). But the point is that restricting the field to merely "who is in the right", rather than stepping up to the plate and saying "what actions should Israel, Palestine, and every other relevant party take to the current situation that best advances its security interests, the prospects of permanent peace, and justice for the Israeli and Palestinian actors", is a discourse that doesn't actually help anyone. So what I'd like to see -- from America and from everyone else -- is a commitment to cool it with the moral hyperbolics which don't accomplish anything, and focus on what matters: the reasonable, concrete policy moves both sides can do to advance the cause of peace and justice.

Cross-posted to The Moderate Voice


Unknown said...

Fresh out of my international law class, I think the standard we use for determining proportionality is not as settled as you would have it. For example, the effectiveness of the use of force isn't just a strategic question because if it's ineffective we're just dealing with gratuitous destruction (which would also be immoral, but since we're dealing with international law and norms and the like, that almost goes without saying).

Anonymous said...

I understand why debate on the morality of Israel's raid gets vexing. But that hardly seems a good reason to stop talking about the issue in terms of moral obligations. Quite frankly, you're giving yourself way to much credit if you think that bloggers "actually help anyone" when they post about Israel's strategic imperatives as against its moral ones - first, because as you noted, precious few of us who spend our time pontificating online are in any position to make claims about the efficacy of certain military efforts; second, because if you look at the checklist of appropriate topics for conversation that you've provided - what will best ensure justice, for example - they obviously presuppose moral categories.

J Street - the commentariat you endorse - explicitly says: "there is nothing "right" in punishing a million and a half already-suffering Gazans for the actions of the extremists among them." When any sane person talks about a conflict like this, a sense of outrage is going to be present. As it should be. Now outrage can't be the end of the story, and like you I'm definitely tired of posts which seem to say little more than I AM OUTRAGED! But quite frankly I'd be a little disturbed if anyone could read about this scale of violence and respond with an immediate: "Well, what's best for the long run interests of blah blah blah". Moral outrage grounds a deep skepticism that any long-term goal or rational interest can justify this scale of violence, and even if that intuition gets overturned in the course of debates over law, policy and, yes, morality, its the healthiest one to start from.

I'd also note that there a high number of posts on your blog, mainly concerned with racial issues but often with gender and sexuality as well, where you go in pretty hard for moral condemnation (and I near always agree in your choice of targets). I really can't imagine why you think moral condemnation is appropriate in those kinds of debates but not in this one.

I'll also echo Joe and say it sounds like you've misunderstood what proportionality means. "Big goals require big sticks" is not it. And as Joe indicates, part of the calculus is to what kind of force can be justified is the anticipated military advantage. You've indicated in this post and in previous ones that Israel has almost no reason to believe this attack will effectively deter Hamas strikes or bolsters its security. In that case, the anticipated military advantage is negligible, and the window for the use of force is pretty small. This goes back to what I was saying before, which is that Israel has a legal right to use military force to enhance its security, but not a legal right to use military force because it feels like it ought to be doing something.

Anonymous said...

One other thing:

I share your enthusiasm for what J Street is doing, and I would be happy if they emerged from all of this as a leader in the policy debate over this conflict. Their call for a sane and moderate middle path really is one of the bright spots in the generally worthless conversation over the recent violence.

That being said, the statement you link to comes dangerously close to being "here's why you can object to this attack even if you don't really care about Palestinians." In fact, if they didn't do what I noted their doing in the above post - that is, foreground their moral sense of the conflict - that interpretation would not be explicitly refuted. It's all well and good to say "if you care about Israel's long term security, you should think X about this." And really, it's absurd that caring about Israel's long-term security has to make one a partisan in this fight. It shouldn't. But you can't say you care about peace and justice in this conflict if Israel's safety is the only good at stake here that you're invested in. (And I don't think that statement applies to you at all). But among the kind of angry leftists who you wish would clam up a little, is a sense that I think is wholly founded in the context of America's stance toward the conflict, namely, that Americans really do not care what happens to Palestinians because they are the "bad guys" in this conflict. Part of the moral dialogue on this issue needs to challenge that mentality. I'm not saying that needs to be J Street's job - they can pick their battles as it suits their goals. And emphasizing how to justly accomplish security for Israel is a laudable goal. But some of the Human Rights commentariat and some of the lefty blogs who tend to emphasize thinks like proportionality and the moral dimension of the conflict are also taking on a valuable service, which is to dramatize Palestinian suffering. I think your frustrating engagements with international opinion and American leftists leaves you, sometimes, with an inadequate sense of exactly how partisan the American people can be when it comes to the rights and safeties of Palestinians. And I think that groups like Human Rights Watch or the ladies over at Feministe are, in challenging that, doing something complimentary to what J Street does - not something that needs to be cut out so that everyone can sound more like J Street.

Anonymous said...

Five points:

1. Hamas' rocket fire into Israel is wrong under any circumstances and must be condemned.

2. Israel broke the last ceasefire, by which Hamas was abiding at the time, when it launched a ground raid into the Gaza Strip on the day of the US election. It apparently violated another informal truce when it launched this latest assault. The question of proportionality aside, in this sense Israel has already broken rules by which it or any other international actor would be expected to abide.

3. We don't know how many civilians have been killed/maimed, but there is no basis for claiming Israel has done a 'stellar job' at sparing civilians from harm. We do know that the IOF is dropping US-made bunker-busting bombs on one of the most densely populated areas on the planet. They have bombed a police graduation ceremony, several Islamic University buildings, a Hamas sports center, mosques, and several UN clinics and facilities. We know that dozens of women and children have already died and hundreds more are injured. This is on top of the collective punishment inflicted by Israel's blockade on Gaza, which has seriously depleted medical, power, and food stocks.

4. Israel is not really in the same situation as other Western powers who have faced popular insurgencies. Hamas' home-made rockets rarely hit their targets. But supposing the analogy is legit, those nations that reacted with reckless and overwhelming military assaults against popular insurgencies tended to be ineffective and deserving of moral condemnation for the wanton 'collateral damage' they caused.

5. Americans cannot look at the attack on Gaza as disinterested observers from an outside party. We are directly complicit in the conflict so long as our taxes and government continue to be a major means of support for the Israeli military apparatus. People absolutely need to apply their morals to this issue and take the appropriate civic action.

For me, the best coverage of the conflict is at the Heathlander. Some of the claims above can be sourced from there.

David Schraub said...

Matt -- I don't actually disagree with you that it's important to have space for moral rhetoric in the conflict (and I think I do note that the pro-Israel side is rather impoverished here when it never considers "the interests of a lasting peace and liberation of the Palestinian people from occupation"). And -- as my concurrence with J Street indicates -- I don't mind when it enters into the conversation. All I mind is when it swallows everything else. J Street's whole point is that it gets swallowed up on both sides: Pro-Israel partisans don't actually care about Israel's interests (much less, obviously, Palestinian interests), just what it has a "right" to do. And anti-Israel partisans don't really care about Palestinian interests (much less Israeli ones), only in trying to promote the notion that the Palestinians are the sole aggrieved party. Breaking past that doesn't mean banishing morals talk, it just means balancing it with a more serious look at the concrete. And honestly, I think that's also the core function of my politics on race -- I'm far less interested in saying "you're a racist" than I am in trying to get folks to answer the question "what policies will best remedy racial hierarchy".

On Int'l law and proportionality: Possibly ideally, proportionality would include not just the claimed benefits of an operation, but the likely ones. But for very solid separation of powers and institutional competency reasons judicial actors are going to be very hesitant to second-guess military evaluations of the effectiveness of an operation, compared to taking those claims at face value and weighing them against the burden the operation places on innocent parties. Obviously, this doesn't apply to extreme cases where there is clearly no link between the operation itself and the claimed benefits, but it isn't bizarre or absurd to imagine that Israel could, in fact, get what it wants out of this operation if it seriously damages Hamas' internal infrastructure.

(1) Sure (obviously)

(2) Kinda (most cease-fires break eventually, and it isn't considered a huge deal by the international community -- that being said, it's still not a good thing to break one)

(3) The Washington Post claims civilian casualties are 57 of 364 total dead (admittedly, they call this a conservative estimate). It's bloodless to say, but that's a very good ratio when we're talking about urban combat where Hamas has embedded itself into civilian infrastructure. Every report I've read (WaPo, NYT, I've even heard sources claiming Hamas admits most of the dead are its own, though I can't verify) is indicating that Israel has done a good job on this axis.

The instinct to assume that Israel is wantonly killing civilians absent of any proof this is so is kind of what I'm talking about in this post. Unless we're locked into this sort of black and white, right versus wrong discourse, we wouldn't need to assert Israel is doing bad along every axis in order to make the point that the assault may still be a bad idea.

(4) I'm not sure why Israel is in a "different" situation from comparable actors. Often times guerilla attacks are pretty poorly aimed. That isn't even that inconsistent with the goal, as randomly falling rockets meet the objective of "sowing terror" no matter where they end up. That being said, I agree that "crush the base" doesn't tend to work (but then I go back to my previous post: neither does any other tactic, including "making concessions for the cause of peace").

(5) Agreed -- but I still think it's more productive for us to channel that energy into promoting, well, productive solutions rather than trying to affect some guilt release for our "complicity" in supporting one side or the other. One is self-indulgent, the other has the potential to actually save lives.

Anonymous said...

Just to respond to the notion that there aren't any civilians being killed - the UN is only counting the casualties of women and children. "[The 62 figure] does not include civilian casualties who are men, even though we know that there have been some civilian men killed as well," UN humanitarian affairs co-ordinator John Holmes said.

I think that's where the Post's numbers are coming from. So, for example, all men at the Hamas police graduation ceremony that was bombed are not being counted as civilians. Neither are these guys in this report:

I think it's my instinct to be skeptical of civilian casualty counts claimed by any military, whether it be ours in Iraq/Afghanistan or Israel's in Gaza.

Anonymous said...

*many [civilians], not any

David Schraub said...

I'm not claiming the civilian deaths are negligible, I'm merely claiming that, in the context of an urban warfare operation against a foe that has deliberately embedded itself inside the civilian population, the ratio sounds pretty good, even accounting for conservative estimates.

PG said...

I don't think Hamas police are counted as civilians in any case. They are a part of the "state" that can use force.

Jack said...

On proportionality: I'm not sure thats quite right. Proportionality does refer to the relationship between force and the military objective but the military objective is not understood as the enemy- its understood as the desired security state. So we can't say oh, destroying Hamas is a really far-reaching objective thus we can use lots of forces. Instead you have to say: Here are the benefits we'll get as a result of us destroying Hamas, therefore the level of force we use has to be proportional to those benefits. Unfortunately, I'm not sure I could name all the benefits but you're probably right that Israel's attacks shouldn't be weighed against JUST the current rocket fire. But what exactly are the other benefits? Its sure as shit not going to de-radicalize Gaza.

Regarding the main topic of your post, I think the reason moral concerns dominate the discussion in America is that its pretty weird for foreigners to take positions on the relative efficacy of foreign military action. Most people assume that a state doesn't intentionally take actions to hurt itself and that the state probably has more relative intelligence than you and I do. Now, I happen to think that Israel's actions probably are strategic errors because it turns out that states don't act rationally but respond to political pressure from their citizens and because terrified people do stupid things, so do terrorized states.

But you don't argue with an irrational person by telling them they're acting irrationally and the IDF doesn't look to the American media, much less our blogs, for strategic advice. So even if your opposition or support for Israel's actions stems from whether or not it will do something good in the long term, it would still make sense to voice you position publicly in moral terms because international moral condemnation/support actually can have influence on a state's policy in a way strategic advice can't come close to. And finally, while Americans and our public officials play no role in the decision to use force, and therefore don't need to make up our mind about whether its a good strategic decision, I think we probably are morally culpable for immoral actions Israel takes given our military support.