Just asking redux

Many comments on my previous post, concerning the comparison between Lebanon, Kosovo and Afghanistan, including one from Matthew Yglesias. There’s nothing like the Middle East to get people’s blood boiling—and that thousands of miles from the region.

Commentators who rejected the analogy did so primarily on two grounds:

1) the goals and threats in each situation are different, so they aren’t really comparable.

2) according to Human Rights Watch, only 500 civilians died in the Kosovo air campaign so Olmert doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

The second argument can be easily dealt with. Yglesias says that we know the answers to this: I’m not so sure, and neither are those readers who point to a Lancet study showing more than 12,000 civilian deaths. Lancet and HRW are measuring different things, but the answers are murkier than Yglesias says. NATO conceded 1,500 civilian deaths; Yugoslavia claimed 5,700.

In any event, it somewhat misses the point. To snark that 500<10,000 simply doesn’t get at the issue. The question is whether you can make a distinction between three wars where air strikes were used as the primary war-fighting method, even though it was obvious that lots of civilians were going to be killed in the process? That is the question, not “Counting the Dead.”

Which leads to the first argument. In fact, that was my point for writing the post: that’s what we should be arguing about: there is no way to argue for the justice or injustice of a war-fighting plan outside the broader political and moral context of the war.

Different people will have very different opinions on these broad questions, but much of the debate has focused exclusively on means, which is an inappropriately narrow way of looking at things. The reasoning of Israel’s critics such as James Zogby and Kofi Annan seems to go: 1) Israel has focused on using air strikes; 2) air strikes in urban areas kill a whole lot of civilians; 3) thus, Israel knows that it is going to kill a lot of civilians; and thus 4) Israel is committing some sort of unspecified war crime because it is knowingly killing civilians.

So when Yglesias says “I don’t really see the point in trying to compare the two wars which simply don’t seem very similar to me,” he is exactly right. But that’s my point: it is a fundamental critique of those critics who seem to be saying that there are some universal principles to war-fighting, and that if you get a lot of civilians killed then you’re a war criminal. This simply makes no sense, and is usually a cover for (in this case) a covert anti-Israel agenda. (These same critics attack Israel for assassinating the leaders of Hamas, the point of which is to avoid civilian casualties. Oh, never mind.).

As to the specifics here: it seems to me that Israel’s critics are far too sanguine about its threat from Hizbullah. Its existential threat to Israel is far greater than Al-Qaeda’s to the United States. It has in its possession several thousand offensive missiles whose sole function is to attack Israeli civilians. It has repeatedly declared its intention to destroy the Jewish state and labels Jews as pigs and dogs. It was responsible for an attack on the Jewish community center in Argentina that killed more than 200 people. Its connections with Hamas and Islamic Jihad are murky, but it is plausible that it is giving training and logistical support to both groups, both of which have committed dozens of suicide bombings: many Hamas bombmakers were trained by Hizbullah when they were in exile. And of course it has kidnapped Israeli soldiers (which, for the record, I do not regard as terrorist act).

I take seriously the counterargument that commentators make that Hizbullah has not actually attacked Israel aside from the kidnappings. That is relevant and a good point. But the risks of being wrong on this are far too great. For the last six years, Hizbullah has been preparing for an all-out attack on Israel, and as we have seen over the last four weeks has done a damn good job of it. It has a powerful ally in Iran and probably Iraq. Unless degraded now, it can and will get significantly stronger, and that includes more sophisticated aid to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. That could means thousands of Israeli deaths. If any other country in the world faced this situation, there is little doubt what it would do

The whole thing is a matter of judgment. Iraq is a lesson for all those who would pre-empt on the basis of a vague threat. But there is another analogy. One could have said the same thing about Germany in 1937: hey, it’s just rhetoric. Hitler needs to keep his people focused on external threats. Besides, Germany hasn’t invaded anybody. They’re just saber-rattling.

I’m not saying that I would have taken the same decision that the Cabinet did; I suggested a different option on this blog, not to mention the serious practical problems that Israel is facing in combatting a very well-prepared and tough foe. But saying I might have done something different is very different from saying that Israel is wrong.

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.

19 thoughts on “Just asking redux”

  1. While I don't have the stomach tonight to enumerate the manifold flaws in the analogy, I would note that Germany remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936, not 1937.

  2. Setting aside the sloppiness of the numbers above ("conceded"? civilian deaths due to NATO or Milosevic?), an important question is the ratio of civilian deaths expected to be caused by the intervention to the number of civilian lives expected to be saved. You have to do a good deal more work on the existential threat claim and esp. on the saving-lives side to make your case more than a guess. I'm a strong supporter of Israel, and it's quite hard for me to see how this conflict will lead to a clearly better situation at the 100s of Israeli civilian causalties killed by terrorists over decades level or the Tel Aviv gets nuked by madmen level.

  3. Mark, or whoever runs this place:
    Remind me to re-add this site to my blogroll when people talking in good faith about the long-term effects of Israel's policy aren't labelled as having a "covert anti-Israel agenda."

  4. Can you give us some more details of the attack by Hexbolah on Israel that you anticipate here:
    "I take seriously the counterargument that commentators make that Hizbullah has not actually attacked Israel aside from the kidnappings [and firing misles, why did you leave that out?]. That is relevant and a good point. But the risks of being wrong on this are far too great. For the last six years, Hizbullah has been preparing for an all-out attack on Israel, and as we have seen over the last four weeks has done a damn good job of it."
    Is this attack missile attacks like is going on now? There have been many deaths but way less than the "thousands" you anticipate ("That could means thousands of Israeli deaths"). Better missiles would mean more deaths, but thousands?
    I am unaware of an army without serious air support attacking an army with total control of the skies in conventional warfare. That seems to be your expactation, however. Could you remind us of where this has been successful?
    When you say Hexbolah has done a good job of attacking Israel in the last few weeks, remind of where we can see reports of Hexbolah fighters *in* Israel. I am likely mistaken but I thought all significant groud action has been in Lebanon, where, it is true, Hexbolah has done a good job defending itself.
    In short, what are you talking about? (In contracts, Hitler had probably the most powerful army in Europe and a very modern airforce; an army which everyone agreed could successfully invade its neighbors if it wanted.)

  5. I don't think it's fair to characterize the responses to your initial post that way. Your initial post, "just asking", asked two questions, and you insisted that they were genuine questions and not rhetorical.
    First, you asked if Ehud Olmert's assumption, that the Kosovo bombing campaign killed 10000 civilians, was correct. Various people answered that it did not appear to be. The best published estimates are less than that by more than an order of magnitude. Now you might reasonably argue that there's no qualitative difference between killing 500 innocent civilians and killing 10000 innocent civilians, that even one is too many—but that's not what you asked. You asked whether Olmert's numbers were actually right, and the answer seems to be no.
    Second, you asked if there was widespread European outrage at the bombings. And the answer you got was: yes. I can vouch for that myself. I happened to be in Italy at the time, and I saw the anti-war demonstrations. Italy officially participated in the war, but that doesn't mean most Italians actually supported it.
    You insisted that these were genuine non-rhetorical questions and that you were interested in factual answers, and you got those factual answers. Still, despite that insistance, I can't help thinking there was a pretty heavy implication that the real question you were asking was: are Europeans a bunch of anti-Israeli hypocrites for thinking it's an outrage when Israel kills innocent civilians while casually accepting the deaths of innocent civilians in other wars? And that's a harder question to answer, especially if it isn't even asked explicitly, but I believe the answer to it is no.

  6. David–
    Ground to ground missiles are powerful weapons. I think it is quite reasonable to believe that the stronger that Hizbullah gets, the more they will be inclined to use them. Right now they don't have them, but as Iranian technology gets better, then they will.
    Secondly, the support that Syria, Iran and Hizbullah give to groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad means that it could and has inflicted actual casualties inside Israel.
    Again: the difficulty is figuring out when such a threat is real and when it is a chimera. I don't envy the Cabinet's choices and might have made a different one, but I think that it is far too easy to dismiss the Hizbullah threat.

  7. Matt-
    Interesting point. They were and are genuine questions. I think that it is intellectually honest to oppose the Kosovo war, the Afghan war, and Israel's Lebanon war on the grounds that too many civilians will be killed. But I don't think that it is intellectually honest to support Kosovo and Afghanistan, and then be horrified at the civilian deaths in Lebanon if civilian deaths is your sole yardstick. What I'm arguing for is a broadening of our notions outside of merely looking at civilian deaths.
    As for European on-the-ground behavior, I'll take your word for it. Certainly that was not my recollection with regard to Afghanistan, but you lived there and I didn't.

  8. Matt–
    Sorry I didn't finish the post. I do remain deeply skeptical about European consistency. Europeans have been silent about Darfur. They have been silent about Tibet. They were pretty silent about Grozny. They were silent about Rwanda. They were silent about Hama. Israel seems to be singled out. That may make sense for them politically, but I don't think you could call it a deep humanitarian impulse.

  9. a couple points:
    "Hizbullah has been preparing for an all-out attack on Israel, and as we have seen over the last four weeks has done a damn good job of it"
    but Hizbullah did not launch an "all-out attack." Israel did. Yes, Israel responded to a provocation. But it is reasonable to ask Is the response appropriate? (ie the bombing of Beirut's airport) and Is the response effective? (ie Israel tried the all out war route in Lebanon before to disastorous results)
    [my neighbor kills my dog. am i then free to burn down the apartment building he lives in?]
    "Iraq is a lesson for all those who would pre-empt on the basis of a vague threat. But there is another analogy. One could have said the same thing about Germany in 1937"
    hindsight is not only 20-20, it is also blind. how would a war against Germany in 37 been carried out by Western countries in the midst of a depression? hindsight is simply too much of a wish fulfillment to be of use. Iraq on the other hand is a daily reminder of how a response to injustice (the hussein regime) can just make the situation worse.

  10. Okay, thank you. You are talking about a serious missile threat, not an invasion. You are right, that is a serious concern. But it does not exist today (I do not want to call the current missiles 'unserious' but they are unguided and most seem to explode harmlessly, so very different from what you are talking about might happen if the future).
    As to support for Hamas and IJ, yes, that is a problem, but I do not see how the fight in Lebanon is particularly relevant.
    Let me get back to a comment I made in a previous post and which (I think) no one responded to: what is the strategy? I really pretty much do not care about morality in war. I care about effectiveness. (That is, to me the important question to ask about a conflict is 'is it effectively achieving the goals or the participants?' Because to me, that is the way to understand what is going on.)
    So I ask you: what is Israel trying to achieve and how well is it doing? The problem I have is I do not believe in the 'lump of Hezbolah' theory: that there is a finite number of Hezbolah fighters and eliminating them eliminates the problem. In any army (broadly conceived) the question is the ratio of casualties to effective recruits. Greater than 1, you have a problem, less than 1, not so much. Do you believe the Hezbolah casualty/recruit ratio is greater than 1? I really do not.
    One way to contain Hezbolah is to strengthen the non-Hezbolah forces in Lebanon so they contain Hezbolah. That requires those forces see Hezbolah as the cause of their own problems, not as an ally. Have those forces been turned away from Hezbolah by the Israeli bombing campaign in Lebanon? To me that is the important question. I am sorry to say I think the answer is no.
    Are we going to return to the occupied southern Lebanon of the 80's and 90's? Will it work? Those missiles you talk about will not only have better accuracy, but longer range. How big a buffer zone will be necessary?
    The US and now Israel seem to me to have each fallen into traps where continued military action is costly and ineffective but retreat seems to leave things worse. We (the US, I live in California) are truly trapped with no one to help us (as far as I can see, Iran wins now or Iran wins later, the only question is how much and how bad). Israel still has a chance: the US talks to Syria, hammers out something marginally acceptable in the next couple of days, and "imposes" in on Israel. Chnace of that happening with the current US goverment? I am afraid 0.
    I am in dispair.

  11. David–
    I fear you may be right. In terms of effectiveness, I think that the Cabinet didn't think through what happens after the first few days of air strikes. Halutz persuaded them that air power could do it. It can't.
    The trouble is that while there is no military solution, there is no diplomatic solution, either. I doubt that engaging Syria will solve anything. Barak tried it, offered Assad the Golan Heights, and was still rejected. And while I agree that strengthening non-Hizbullah forces would be helpful, that also doesn't seem to work.
    So our two moods are the same.

  12. My only comment is a cease fire negotiated with Syria and "imposed" on Israel at elast would stop the descent into the pit, if only for a while, and give people time to consider other solutions. But it won't happen so so what.

  13. "Israel seems to be singled out. That may make sense for them politically, but I don't think you could call it a deep humanitarian impulse."
    Tactical political considerations may be the explanation for statements by governments. They don't explain the relative level of attention focused on Israel's actions by many in the West or the level of emotion that those individuals evidence.
    They do however provide social validation for the belief system underlying that emotion. I believe this is going to prove quite dangerous.

  14. I don't reject that preemptive war may sometimes– though in very limited circumstances– be justified and appropriate. However, the analogies to Hitler and Chamberlain are the most misused and uninformed historical analogies I have ever heard.
    Simply put, Britain used Chamberlain's "appeasement" to remilitarize and build a force that could actually– with the help of the not insubstantial forces of the USSR and the US– not lose a war to the Germans. Had Britain done what Churchill wanted, they would have lost the war to the great German war machine, which they weren't yet ready to take on.
    It's a very nice demonstration of how it may be fine to be opposed to appeasement in theory, but it can in fact be a very good policy compared to its alternatives.

  15. Really, do impotent Arab bigots pose an 'existential threat' to Israel? Because the _fact that they are bigots_ is the #2 reason you came up with that they are an existential threat.
    I suppose we should start carpet-bombing Alabama now? And you know, there are a few other regions in the world where different ethnic groups have very low opinions of one another.
    Hezbollah does not pose an existential threat to Israel, but Israel definitely poses an existential threat to every human being in the region. They should stop.
    (Please, don't misread me as saying that Israelis are not humans. I've taken from recent commentary that it is right and good to blame a perceived aggressor for any retaliation that it may bring about. So if the talking-heads say Hezbollah is threateing Lebanese people by provoking the Israelis into bombing, I say that Israel is threatening Israeli people by provoking Hezbollah into rocketing. Why _wouldn't_ it work both ways?)

  16. There were people in the US who were equally sure that the Soviet Union would launch a first-strike against the US and kill millions of people and equally certain that the best option for the US was to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union, no matter the current cost from retaliation.
    The risk was just too great.
    Thank God they weren't in charge.
    Too bad they have been in Israel.

  17. I am coming around to the conclusion that anyone who asserts that there is an existential threat to Israel (which I take to mean a threat to the existence of Israel rather than a Sartreian challenge to its authenticity) should be obliged to sketch out the sequence of events linking the present situation to Israel winking out of existence, enabling us to assess the plausibility of that scenario. As a rhetorical trope it is singularly unhelpful.
    The Chamberlain analogy has yet another aspect to it, beside the buying time argument, that weakens its use as a universal solvent; on one level, the calculations of the appeasers were probably correct. They didn't oppose the reoccupation of the Rhineland in part because they believed that if they did oppose hitler successfully this would bring to power, or at least strengthen, the german communists. We now think (partly, given that the extermination programs hadn't started by 1936, with the use of material inaccessible to them) that we disagree(in general,sort of) with their choice – but they were nonetheless right in thinking that in a multiplayer game weakening one player inevitably and unavoidably strengthened another, as Bush 1 was right in thinking that overthrowing Saddam would strengthen Iran. Geopolitical decisions don't have solutions, only consequences.

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