Just asking

NATO began its war against Milosevic and the United States began its war against the Taliban with extended bombing campaigns. What do we know about the numbers of civilians killed, wounded or displaced and the monetary damage that both bombing campaigns cost?

And did the Europeans or the Arab League condemn the US or NATO for a “barbarous attack” against civilians?

These questions are not simply rhetorical: it is important to know. Ha’aretz quoted Ehud Olmert last week as saying that the Europeans were in no position to criticize Israel when NATO bombing killed 10,000 civilians in Serbia and Kosovo. I don’t know whether his numbers are right, but they are plausible.

Is there any principled justification for thinking Israel barbaric in Lebanon and NATO not so in Kosovo and the US not so in Afghanistan?

I suspect that there may be some sharp comments. In the words of Mr. Black, try not to shoot anybody in the face.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

25 thoughts on “Just asking”

  1. The answer to your question depends on what you mean by "the Europeans". Western European governments were on board for Kosovo and Afghanistan so they did not denounce the bombings (except for bombing the Chinese embassy in Belgrade which caused the prime minister of Italy to say too many mistakes were being made). European commentators and journalists were IIRC quite enthusiastic about denouncing NATO bombing of Serbia to the extent that I found the voices pointing out that they had been calling for the USA to do something about Kosovo quite lonely.
    I live in Italy. My sense was that public opinion was strongly against the Clinton administration on Kosovo.
    As to Afghanistan well 9-11 changed everything for a while. Certainly civilian deaths due to US bombing were reported and many people thought the US should have done better in, for example, not bombing more than one ICRC warehouse in Kabul. My recollection of the war certainly includes recollection of extensive coverage of the US bombing a village tucked into a ravine that looked to someone like a terrorist camp and, of course, extensive extensive discussion of the US bombing red cross buildings (with huge red crosses on their roofs) in Kabul.
    If people relying on US news sources have the impression that no one was denouncing the USAF for bombing neutral embassies, civilian targets, and the red cross in both wars, then my concern about the US MSM just turned into panic.

  2. It's particularly strange hearing the Russians say much of anything about this conflict given what Grozny looks like these days.

  3. Do we need to take into account the number of deaths the bombings were supposed to prevent, or were in reaction to, and how likely the bombing is to get the results the bombers desire? Surely a bombing that accomplishes nothing or makes things worse is more barbarous than a bombing that improves the situation in some way.

  4. Jonathon:
    The answer is, proportion. Most major ethical and moral systems suggest laws of war that violence violence should be in some proportion to the threat, and that some violence in the name of saving a greater number of innocents is appropriate. An extreme example of proposed bombing in the service of greater good was the request of the American Jewish community to bomb German concentration camps.
    In the case of the Taliban government, the world judged that the threat greater extrapolating from previous al Qaeda attacks. In the case of Kosovo, the number of likely victims was also high.
    You do have a point, though, questioning the general sense of appropriateness.

  5. (oops, hit the post button too soon).
    Although there was not much oxygen for it at the time, there was a muted argument about whether greater use of US ground forces should have been used have minimized Afghan civilian deaths caused by bombing.
    In both Afghanistan and Kosovo, the administrations judged that the voters did not have the stomach for a large number of dead US soldiers, and went with Bombing… the side story came from the Mogadishu incident. Clinton correctly judged that the US would not stand for losing soldiers in obscure places we couldn't even find on a map. The Bush administration, although also worried that we would only tolerate a small number of casualties, was concerned that losing soldiers in Afghanistan would minimize its ability to invade Iraq. In the second case, they were wrong, as the US public barely batter an eye at Operation Anaconda, and only just now has decided to make politicians pay a price for the recent carnage.

  6. The Wikipedia (ok but it's a start) has as summary that seems reasonable.
    However, Jonathan, I don't believe you're going to get to the heart of this issue through a discussion of what's "principled." The West has a lot of colonial sin to atone for, and we naturally feel guilt about this and dissonance about being the beneficiaries. Projection is one way to cope, and there's plenty of historical precendence for this mechanism operating not just on an individual level, but a social scale as well.

  7. Hmmmmmm . . . let's see . . . Milosevic was actively engaged in an actual military campaign to butcher hundreds, thousand, millions (?) of people based on their ethnicity.
    Hezbollah has been shooting a few rockets into Israel every so often and usually doesn't kill anybody and they have no active military campaign roaming the Israeli countryside engaged in the mass butchering of civilians (not that they don't want to mind you).
    Naw, no difference.

  8. Try checking with Prof. Dershowitz on this. I'm sure he has some interesting thoughts.

  9. The key legal differences are intent and proportionality. Human Rights Watch (and, for that matter, explicit statements by Israel's civilian and military leaders) show that Israel is targeting non-combatants in order to get them to change their political affiliations. NATO did target some media outlets, which was a war crime, but the destruction of the Chinese embassy, for example, was almost certainly accidental.

  10. And just btw, the Taliban was actually the government in Afghanistan – Hezbollah, despite its control of a large part of Lebanon in the south, is not the government of Lebanon.
    It's one thing to say that a population suffers the consequences for those they allow to govern their country.
    It's quite another to say that a government and its population should suffer the consequences for those criminals in their midst that they cannot control.
    If not, then Arabs certainly have a justification in also targeting the Israelis in general due to the failure of that government to prevent the murder of Arabs by radical Israeli settlers and even more so American civilians for their assent to governments that have sponsored the murder of Arabs by proxy through financially and militarily supported tyrants and directly by bombing campaigns that basically say "we don't care if there are hostages around the enemy who have no control over being hostages – they are to be sacrificed to our desire to kill the hostage takers."

  11. As nobody seems to have mentioned yet, only 500 civilians were killed in the Kosovo bombing campaign. And as someone did mention, this campaign succeded in stopping an active campaign of genocide, so it very likely did save more civilian lives.
    How many rockets would Hezbollah have to fire at northern Israel to kill even 500 civilians? More than they have, I bet.

  12. (More than they _possess_, not more than they have already fired. The ratio they've achieved so far suggests the need for half a million rockets to kill 500 people. Their stockpile is estimated at around 20,000.)
    The Internet is a marvellous thing and allows us to _look up_ numbers instead of just making crude insinuative estimates.

  13. The question to me has always been 'what is your strategy?' Isn't the prize, what you are fighting for, the hearts and minds of the Lebanese majority? Win that and Hezbolah might be contained. Lose it and not.
    This argument is like the arguments for shock and awe military confrontation in Iraq and a low key, counterinsurgency approach described so well in 'Fiasco' by Tom Ricks: in Iraq we have been winning every battle and losing the war, as the Iraqi people turned against us and the occupation.
    So now the Lebanese people are turning to Hezbolah. Regardless of the morality, is that a victory? Why don't you talk about that rather than boring (really boring) bullsessions about who was worse in what conflict.

  14. "It's one thing to say that a population suffers the consequences for those they allow to govern their country.
    It's quite another to say that a government and its population should suffer the consequences for those criminals in their midst that they cannot control."
    While I can't think of any examples off the top of my head, I am pretty sure there have been times when a nation's government is full of criminals the people cannot control. I can't agree that a populations culpability lies solely with the fact that the government is involved.

  15. I'm sympathetic to Israel's plight, although the Israelis and their supporters appear to consistently fail to admit that having one's land stolen and your people murdered and impoverished are legitimate grievances that might require at least an acknowledgement and apology, but I'm also sympathetic to the victims of gang violence, many of whom have done nothing to deserve their fate (they didn't steal any land, aren't committing murders, aren't apologists for those who do commit murders, haven't impoverished anyone, e.g.).
    The annual number of murders by such gangs, in many respects similar to terrorists, likely exceed the annual number of Israelis killed by Hezbollah rocket attacks (prior to the current invasion of Lebanon, of course), yet, we do not invade and militarize gang-infested areas of the US or rampantly bomb these civilian areas, trying to kill gang members 'hiding among the populace', with the mere hope of avoiding civilian casualties.
    If your analogy to Kosovo and Afghanistan is to stand, then surely the gangs of LA stand as an apt analogy to Hezbollah.
    So, do you support a similar level of military response to such gangs?
    Really, I'm curious.
    Do the deaths of a few score Israelis over the last several years (and likely an equal number of Hezbollah deaths from Israeli counterstrikes) justify the current number of deaths on either or both sides, as well as innocents, occurring over as period of just a few weeks, not to mention the subsequent deaths that will result from destruction of Lebanon's infrastructure?
    Even if the Israeli invasion halts the killing by terrorist organizations, a dubious prospect since 18 years in Lebanon previously didn't do it, how many years will it be before the number of deaths caused by the invasion is a wash with the number of deaths that would have occurred if not for the invasion?
    I see nothing in Israel's actions that is likely to result in a significant drop in the number of Israeli civilians ultimately killed by terrorists; indeed, Israel's actions will likely result in more Israeli civilian deaths in the end, not fewer.
    Here's a reasonable calculus:
    Israel did nothing –
    A few score Israeli civilians and a far smaller number of soldiers die over the next five years.
    A few score or more members of Hezbollah are killed over the next few years.
    Virtually no Lebanese civilians (other than those directly supporting Hezbollah) are killed or wounded; virtually no destruction to the Lebanese infrastruture.
    No escalation of an already volatile situation caused by the US invasion of Iraq.
    Israel invades –
    Hundreds of Israeli civilians are killed over the next five MONTHS.
    Hundreds of members of Hezbollah are killed over the next five MONTHS.
    Thousands of Lebanese civlians are killed or wounded directly and destruction of the Lebanese infrastructure results in hundreds more deaths and a very reduced quality of life for tens of thousands, maybe millions, of Lebanese.
    Possible spread of war throughout the region, drawing in other countries from around the world, with the deaths of American troops and troops from other nations.
    Terrorsts attacks continue to take their toll on Israel for the foreseeable future, at the same rate or even an increased rate, due to a greater number of enemies generated by Israel's killing of innocent civilians.
    Now, exactly how does this calculus justify the Israeli invasion? From any perspective other than "feel good"? How do Israeli civilians actually benefit in the long run, other than the emotional satisfaction of "sticking it to Hezbollah and damn the consequences for innocents" or "at least we're actively killing those who hate us, even though we're generating haters at a greater rate than we are killing them".

  16. Brendan: "While I can't think of any examples off the top of my head, I am pretty sure there have been times when a nation's government is full of criminals the people cannot control. I can't agree that a [population's] culpability lies solely with the fact that the government is involved."
    Saddam's Iraq comes to mind as a government full by criminals and beyond the contol of the populace.
    But the point is that you can't hold the populace culpable or liable for those things that they cannot control.
    And that's essentially what Israel and its defenders are doing with respect to Lebanon – since you won't (or can't) control Hezbollah, we will by any means available and the hell with you because of your failure.
    It is also what the Arab terrorists have done.
    That the latter are wrong in their policy doesn't make the former right in the same policy.
    Based on history, there is no calculation by which the Israeli action will be successful in limiting the number of civilian and military casualties simply in Israel itself to less than what would have occurred absent any action, and the collateral damage, both political and physical, will be far, far worse.
    Unless Israel intends to and can wipe every Arab nation off the face of the Earth, it cannot hope to achieve the goal it claims and to do this would be as immoral as the holocaust.
    Even Arabs willing to tolerate Israel's existence and live in peace or unwilling to embrace racism and religious zealotry and hatred, will be driven to violence against Israel for other reasons, based on the immorality of this invasion and the killing of innocents, and the number who will be so driven will only increase exponentially the longer the invasion and killing lasts.

  17. Ah, the self-corrected blogosphere. 1 hour after the post, the number gets reduced by a factor of 20, yet the main post still sits there with a five-digit number.

  18. Here is the WaPo blog post where I first heard of this quote from Olmert. On an injudicious reading I thought Olmert may have been referring to more then the 1999 operation Allied Force, but it is clear in the WaPo blog post that he confines his statement to that action.
    Olmert is clearly in error, however it is worth pointing out that NATO was supporting the insurgent force by attacking the more traditional military occuping force, reducing the risk for civilian collateral damage.

  19. Note that the HRW report counts 500 civilian deaths in some 90 incidents – that's different than an estimate for the actual total. NATO claimed an upper limit of 1.5k: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kosovo_War#Civilian_… 10k doesn't sound plausible to me. However it's a large number, and I think the post's point stands. There's of course the counter-issue of the number of civilian lives saved by the action, which works counter to the post's argument.

  20. Did the US have a policy in Afghanistan of bombing literally everything that moved, just because it happened to be in a particular part of the country? The same question pertains to Kosovo.

  21. From Lancet, June 24, 2000:
    Our estimate of 12 000 deaths directly related to war trauma between February, 1998, and June, 1999, represents the first epidemiological estimate to be obtained for the entire Kosovar Albanian population. It is consistent with other estimates proposed by Physicians for Human Rights (9269 deaths during a 1-year period),6 the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (11 334 deaths, exact time period not specified),9 and the US Department of State (at least 10 000 deaths, exact time not specified, http://www.stat.gov/www/global/human_…, accessed April 20, 1999). Although it is not possible to differentiate completely between civilian and military casualties because of the nature of the conflict and the sensitivities of gathering this type of information, the age distribution of casualties in our survey, together with information derived from interviews with survivors, suggests that most deaths were civilian.
    The full article (registration required) can be found here:

  22. I don't remember the "world community" screaming for a cease-fire during Kosovo. The difference is minimal: both the U.S. and Israel have done what they could to stop terror. Clinton attacked from the air,from the motive of stopping a massacre of Europeans, so as to avoid any possible loss of American lives. Whatever the number of deaths, there is no doubt that it caused substantial civilian casualties. The net effect of not putting boots on the ground was to allow Milosevic to carry out a massive slaughter, until he finally was stopped. Israel, on the other hand, is having its own civilian population attacked, and began its defense by bombing terrorists from the air, so as to minimize infantry losses, and to try to avoid a re-occupation. All of 1% of Beirut has been bombed, and only in terrorist controlled areas. The bombing in southern Lebanon was aimed at Hezbollah, which placed its arms in the midst of a civilian population. Facing an existential crisis of this magnitude, what would Israel's critics do if it happened to their countries? Sit around, and accept it, or strike out in a way that might stop the attacks? Word is slowly filtering out from brave Lebanese who have welcomed Israel's actions in trying to rid them of the menace of this terror.

  23. "The Israel Defense Forces reported that 122 Israelis have been killed, including 40 civilians, and more than 700 wounded."
    Question: How many Israelis have been killed or wounded in the last 5 years, or even 10 years, by Hezbollah attacks?
    More than the 122, 40, and 700 documented to date since the invasion of Lebanon, a few weeks time?
    How many ethnic killings were stopped in Bosnia and Kosovo?
    10,000? 100,000? 250,000? More?
    What "mass slaughter" of this magnitude was occurring in Israel prior to their invasion of Lebanon?
    Has Israel lost over the last 5 years even as many as the 2000 plus that America lost on one day during 9/11?
    Was Israel really in danger of such a mass slaughter from transient and sporadic Hezbollah attacks?
    Is there any evidence at all indicating Hezbollah was getting bolder or more effective?
    Please, compare Kosovo/Bosnia and Israel with some real numbers to prove your assertion that "the difference is minimal . . ."
    This is not to minimize the terror that has been visited on Israel, but to equate what Israel has to fear to what the people in Kosovo and Bosnia had to fear is simply hysterical.
    You would have thought, from some of the comments supporting the Israeli action, that Israel was on the day before their invasion of Lebanon even remotely facing an immediate, imminent, or even near-future threat of mass casualties and extermination equal to or greater than that which they are now visiting on Lebanon.
    Again, that is an hysterical (not the 'funny' sense of the word, either) reaction.
    The threat from the capture or killing of less than a dozen soldiers and sporadic rocket attacks doesn't even come close to the threat of mass killing that had happened, was going on and continued to be imminent in Bosnia and Kosovo.

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