Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The fatuous "proportionate response" argument

What Would a Proportionate Response Look Like?
Michael J. Totten

“If someone was sending rockets on my house where my daughters were sleeping at night, I would do everything to stop it, and I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.” – President-elect Barack Obama

Now that Hamas’s long war against Israel is matched with a short war in Gaza, protests are erupting everywhere from the blogosphere and Arab capitals to the United Nations, and they began on the very first day. blogger Glenn Greenwald calls the Israeli retaliation to more than a year of rocket attacks a “massively disproportionate response.” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay “strongly condemned Israel’s disproportionate use of force.” The Israeli counterattack is, indeed, disproportionate, but it could hardly be otherwise. “At last count,” J.G. Thayer wrote, “one Israeli and two Palestinians (sisters, ages 13 and 5) died from rocket attacks. So a proportionate response, one presumes, would have required Israel to kill a single Palestinian and two of its own citizens.”

There were, I suppose, other “proportionate” responses available aside from killing one Palestinian and two Israelis. The Israel Defense Forces might have launched thousands of air strikes against targets in Gaza to match the thousands of Qassam rockets fired at the cities of Sderot and Ashkelon. It’s unlikely, however, that this is what Israel’s critics have in mind.

So what do they have in mind? What would a legitimate and “proportionate” response actually look like? Surely they don’t believe Israel should scrap its sophisticated weapons systems, build Qassam rockets, and launch those at Gaza instead.

The “disproportionate response” crowd doesn’t seem to mind that Israel struck back at Hamas per se. They aren’t saying Israel should only be allowed to negotiate with its enemies or that any use of force whatsoever is wrong. They’re clearly saying Israel should use less force, inflict less damage, or both.

One problem here is that it’s not at all clear how they think Israelis should go about doing it. The weapons used by each side can’t be the same. No one has ever said Israel ought to put its superior weapons systems in cold storage until Hamas can develop or purchase something similar. Presumably Israel is allowed to use its superior technology as long as the casualty count on each side is proportionate.

But how would that work in practice? A single Israeli air strike is going to kill at least as many people as Hamas can kill in twelve months. Does that mean Israel should be given a “license” of one air strike per year to use in the war? If IDF commanders want to take out a target where they expect five Hamas leaders or fighters to be killed, do they have to wait until five Israelis are killed first? If the Israelis endure rocket fire until one civilian is killed, do they get a “kill one Palestinian terrorist” coupon?

If strict proportionality isn’t necessary, what are the limits? If the Israelis kill two Palestinians for every Israeli that’s killed, is that okay? Or is doubling the number of casualties on each side too unfair to the Palestinians?

No army in the history of human civilization has ever hamstrung itself with these kind of restrictions in wartime, but let’s leave that aside for the moment and assume the IDF should be the first. Maybe Israeli commanders will be swayed by the legion of bloggers, Arab street radicals, and United Nations apparatchiks. What, precisely, should be the limits and rules of proportionate war? If critics expect to be taken seriously, they will need to advise.

59 Responses to “What Would a Proportionate Response Look Like?”
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1mikey says:
Michael, long time reader of your blog and frequent contributor; love your stuff. To paraphrase Krauthammer and some others, if Hamas and Fatah laid down their arms, peace would follow in short order. If the Israelis laid down their arms they would all be dead or fleeing shortly. To hell with a proportional response. Israel is surrounded by enemies bent on their annihilation. If they don’t fight a bloody, no quarter, decisive battle now, one fought later will be even bloodier and the Jewish state may very well cease to exist. With all due respect, a phrase that inevitably precedes an insult, Michael, rather than navel gaze and survey world opinion Israel needs to suck up and neutralize the Hamas threat as completely as possible. That may include ground operations, reoccupation, house to hovel fighting and whatever else it takes. Anything less subjects the Israeli civilian populace to further indiscriminate artillery attack. What other nation would accept such a state of affairs?

2Michael J. Totten says:
Mikey: "With all due respect, a phrase that inevitably precedes an insult, Michael, rather than navel gaze and survey world opinion Israel needs to suck up and neutralize the Hamas threat as completely as possible." I don’t think Israelis need to concern themselves overly much about a proportionate response. (Nuking Gaza would be psychotically disproportionate, but you know what I mean.) The point here is to get those who think Israelis should concern themselves overly much to think about what they are saying.

3mikey says:
You’re taking a more thoughtful approach to answering those who push the proportional response meme. It’s a challenge to them to actually back up all the emotion with a reasoned argument. In my heavy-handed way I just dismiss it out of hand as inherently dishonest.

4Steven Says:
You have to challenge the premise of these critics or else what they say is simply made into propaganda that forms the basis for policies and U.N. resolutions. These people exist in an echo chamber and their words are just taken for fact, when in fact they have no basis. But how does a cursory observer (the public at large) discern what is the truth if those who know the truth don’t say anything? This is the value of the writers at commentary, but it something that all conservatives must learn to do in challenging hyperbolic liberals.

5materialist says:
Welcome, Michael! Good to see your stuff on this site. Insightful, as always. But isn’t this “proportional response” stuff kind of a dumb point? Does it really deserve a reasoned intellectual discussion? Didn’t Dirty Harry put this crap to bed years ago?

6dfp21 says:
A “proportionate response” would be to drop cluster bombs randomly around Gaza missile launch sites. That would terrorize the Gaza inhabitants in proportion to the Israelis. But it would require Israel to sink to the level of Hamas and the U.N., which Israel will will never do.

7Dan says:
DFP states it clear. Terrorism is total war, id est, war made without any discrimination. In fact, terror usually DELIBERATELY avoids military targets so as to target civilians, and thus obtain a greater terroristic impact among the enemy populace. Were Israel to respond in kind, they would go to some lengths to avoid targeting the gunmen, and aim for as many Palestinians as they could. Palestinian terror consistently tries to hit as many Jews in one spot as possible. Buses, discos, pizzarias and shopping malls are thus favourite jaunts for the followers of mohammad. What the Israelis are doing, though some laud them for it, is still something that isn’t going to advance their strategic interest. What did General Sherman say? “War is violence, moderation in war is an imbecility.” And Sherman did far more to end hostilities, genuine hostilities in the South, than Grant did slugging it out with Lee in Virginia. So are the Israelis simply involved in reprisal strikes, which though not without provocation, still do little to advance the ball towards a DURABLE, LASTING peace in the region. Which is why I’ve advocated buying out those Palestinians who will take the cash, (dispensed on a per capita basis) and forcibly evicting those that refuse. Fifty years of reprisals, strikes and counter-strikes, fifty years worth of worthless diplomatic wrangling, which has now boiled down to strongarming and pressuring Jews into making concessions without any corresponding concessions from killers, murderers and a community that vicariously gets it kicks from such killers and murderers. So are you guys ready and willing to watch this pathological drama play itself out for the next fifty years? Or are you ready now to finally embrace the only policy that guarantees tranquility West of the Jordan?

8MarkC says:
The whole “proportionate response” argument is conceptually mistaken and is actually a back-door delegitimization of Israel’s right to self-defense and ultimately to exist. A right to self-defense means the right to take all means necessary to end (stress on the word “end”) acts of aggression against it’s citizens. A proportional response, by definition, will not end the aggression, because the aggressor has already factored the proportional response into its decision to attack. When America was attacked on 9/11, they responded by attacking and occupying not one, but two countries. Why should Israel’s right be any different? There are two reasons. First, Israel is small, and other countries (especially the U.S.) can boss us around. The world wants quiet in this region, and to a large extent are willing to sacrifice Israel’s security for a short term calm. Don’t get me wrong, the U.S. is the best friend Israel ever had, but our needs aren’t always parallel. The second reason is original sin. Have you ever noticed that in any argument the Israel haters will bring out a long laundry list of historical grievances that have no bearing on the issue at hand? Israel is burdened with original sin, and therefore its right to exist is conditional and impaired. Israel is like the common law thief that breaks into someone’s house at night. Does the thief have the right to defend himself when the owner attacks him? This is how the Israel haters see the argument. That’s why there is the unquestioned assumption that Israel is limited to proportional responses.

9State JAG says:
This is a pet peeve of mine. I teach the Law of Armed Conflict to deploying National Guard troops. According to US Army doctrine, which is intended to comply with international law obligations, “proportionality” of force is measured against the military objective to be achieved. It is “don’t destroy the entire village when the military objective is a sniper in a single building.” It is NOT a “tit for tat” thing. It has nothing to do with how many of my people your side killed. It is related to “discrimination” which is the concept that force should be used only against combatants---although collateral damage and injury to non-combatants may occur (is the collateral damage “proportionate” to the intended military objective? Do you have positive identification of the target before shooting?). The foregoing is my personal opinion and most certainly not the opinion of anyone or anything else.

10Daran says:
The goal is to stop Hamas firing the missiles, on that even the left agrees. So the amount of violence that achieves that goal is appropriate. Given that Hamas has vowed to continue fighting, it is clear that Israel has currently applied less than than the appropriate amount of force. Ergo: sustain the attacks or even increase them.

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