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.