Home/Daniel Larison/Proportionality and Gaza

Proportionality and Gaza

One thing that Walter Russell Mead confirms in his post on Gaza is that he doesn’t understand 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.

This is a definition of proportionality as imagined by an advocate for total war. That is, Mead is defining proportionality in such a way that virtually no one would ever agree to it. It’s important to appreciate just how wrong Mead is. What matters is not the means of retaliation, but the target and effects of retaliation. The issue is not really that one belligerent is technologically superior to the other and must not use its more advanced weapons for the sake of fairness, but that in using them it engages in indiscriminate killing and creates worse evils than those the retaliation was intended to overcome.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the requirement of proportionality in just war theory is that “the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.” By any reckoning, the current operation in Gaza has already done this, and the harm will be compounded if the Israeli government decides to launch a ground invasion. The fact that it is not yet as disproportionate as Operation Cast Lead or the second Lebanon war doesn’t make it all right. There are several other tests required in just war theory that Mead simply ignores, including whether there are “serious prospects of success,” which assumes that a given military operation has definable, obtainable objectives. Those objectives seem somewhat unclear in this case, so it’s difficult to argue that there are serious prospects of reaching them.

Mead also retells a favorite story of his about “Jacksonian” Americans to explain why most Americans sympathize more with the Israelis according to various polls, but I suspect that the reason for this sympathy is much more straightforward. First and foremost, virtually every elected official from both major parties in our government supports Israel’s actions, and it doesn’t seem to matter what those actions are. When almost everyone in a position of political leadership supports something, that has some real influence on how Americans think about an issue. Considering the near-unanimity in the political class on this question, it is interesting that American public opinion is more divided. Another factor is that Israel is a client of the U.S. As such, Israel is generally perceived to be on “our” side, and Americans are going to sympathize more with a government and a nation that they believe to be on “our” side than with the people on the other side of the conflict.

I don’t think most Americans are indifferent to indiscriminate killing and disproportionate violence in war as a general rule, but like many other nations most Americans make exceptions for the conduct of the belligerent that we believe to be in the right. Conduct by one state or group that would earn “our” condemnation is defended or overlooked when committed by one of “ours.” That’s an unfortunate attitude, but it’s hardly limited to “Jacksonian” Americans.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

leave a comment