IN THE NEWS
The violence in Lebanon has sparked a moral debate in the blogosphere. What is the correct amount of violence to apply, against which targets, in conflicts like the one between Israel and Hezbollah?
While I'm all for clear moral reasoning in military affairs, I think a lot of this debate is fundamentally misconceived. Moral reasoning depends on a clear understanding of the situation where morality is supposed to apply. In other words, the devil is truly in the details. To use the Philosophy 101 example of this principle, it is generally wrong to lie, but most rational beings would agree that it's not wrong to lie to Nazis about the Jews hiding in your attic.
Moral questions about Israel's recent conduct, therefore, have to start with some understanding of the nature of the war itself. Unfortunately, these operational details seem to be lost on most of the people involved in this debate. The differences between conventional warfare and counterinsurgency, between conventional warfare and counterterrorism, and between counterinsurgency and counterterrorism are significant. These are three different types of warfare, each posing different strategic and moral challenges. Israeli civilian and military leaders are certainly aware of these differences, after fighting a few conventional wars against Arab armies, countless counterterrorist operations against Palestinian enemies, and a counterinsurgency war (of a distinctly urban character) in Lebanon.
However, the arguments over whether Israel's attempt to "break the back" of Hezbollah seem to miss these distinctions altogether. Here's an example from Captain's Quarters:
To use a crude analogy, if someone is stupid enought to bring a knife to a gunfight, it doesn't mean that those holding the guns have a moral obligation to fight with knives instead. Proportionality demands exactly that, and it leads to nothing but longer and more destructive wars. Part of the reasons nations build strong militaries is to deter people from committing aggressive acts against them. The United States did not build the military it has just to provide "proportionate" reponse. Such a limitation would invite any tinpot dictator or kleptocrat to attack us, knowing that we would only respond in proportion to their ability to attack. It makes every fight even-up from the beginning, odds that would encourage a lot more fighting, not less.
Of course, Israel isn't fighting a tinpot dictator or kleptocrat. It's not even fighting a state. Instead, its enemy is an armed political movement, fired by religious enthusiasms. Although Hezbollah's leaders are not lunatics, deterrence doesn't work quite the same as it once did between Israel and Egypt.
The Captain's Table also makes the outlandish accusation that "the world" (whoever that is) expects Israel to "fight with one hand tied behind its back." That statement bears no resemblance to the criticisms of the Olmert government's strategy I've read. Instead, "the world" (if by that we mean critics of what Israel is doing in Lebanon) expect Israel to fight Hezbollah as if it were not a conventional army. Blowing up bridges and power stations might injure a conventional military force, dependent on the economic and physical infrastructure in the theater of operations. The tragedies that befalls civilians living in the combat zone might be unavoidable, as they certainly were when the Allies invaded France in 1944. (The author of Sicilian Notes makes much the same point: "Nobody today complains about the thousands of dead French civilians from the liberation of Normandy and it would be self-evidently ludicrous to do so.") However, the death of innocent bystanders, and the loss of their property, has almost no bearing on the conflict itself.
However, in southern Lebanon, these same operational methods--blowing up bridges and power plants--will have far less effect on Hezbollah than it did on the Wehrmacht. These attacks also risk driving many Lebanese into the arms of Hezbollah, and creating the kind of political chaos in which Hezbollah has traditionally thrived.
In a similar vein to Captain's Table, TigerHawk argues the following:
The left claims that the powerful states of the world, especially the
United States and Israel, need not fear for their security because they
can use their military power to deter aggression. To a post-Cold War
lefty, the magic of deterrance supposedly obviates the need to
intervene preemptively, or to remove regimes that commit "petty" acts
of war against us or even declare themselves to be our enemy. See,
e.g., the most frequently offered reasons why we should not have
removed Saddam, or should not consider military options to deal with
Iran. We can, after all, obliterate any power that actually attacks us,
so why worry? What your basic anti-defense lefty does not admit,
however, is that effective deterrance requires not only the capability
to retaliate, but that the threat to retaliate be credible. The former
without the latter is worthless.
The left claims that the powerful states of the world, especially the United States and Israel, need not fear for their security because they can use their military power to deter aggression. To a post-Cold War lefty, the magic of deterrance supposedly obviates the need to intervene preemptively, or to remove regimes that commit "petty" acts of war against us or even declare themselves to be our enemy. See, e.g., the most frequently offered reasons why we should not have removed Saddam, or should not consider military options to deal with Iran. We can, after all, obliterate any power that actually attacks us, so why worry?
What your basic anti-defense lefty does not admit, however, is that effective deterrance requires not only the capability to retaliate, but that the threat to retaliate be credible. The former without the latter is worthless.
Stripping the snide rhetoric about "anti-defense lefties" out of these statements, you're left with another argument for Israel's practical and moral need to deter potential enemies. Unfortunately, this line of reasoning violates the basic Clausewitzian dictum about warfare: it's supposed to engineer a particular political outcome. TigerHawk races from the action (retaliation for kidnappings and rocket attacks) to a presumed result (deterrence), without checking the political roadmap to see if that's where Israel has actually arrived.
Undoubtedly, people commenting on guerrilla warfare and terrorism often make the mistake of sounding as though any retaliation is bad: Military responses just set off a cycle of violence. You're just playing into the hands of the enemy. And so forth. If you listened to some of the worst offenders (who may be the "lefties" with whom TigerHawk takes issue), events like the routing of the Taliban in 2001 may be a bit of a surprise. (The problem in Afghanistan wasn't the US/NATO invasion, but the incomplete effort that let the Taliban survive, regroup, and counterattack.)
On some occasions, these warnings about retaliation are appropriate. Unless Israel plans on occupying Lebanon again, the current conflict will not wipe Hezbollah from the map. (Even if Israel did occupy Lebanon, that outcome would be doubtful.) Instead, it has created greater uncertainty about security along its northern border, particularly now that a lot more Lebanese truly hate Israel with a passion they didn't have before a few days ago. Israel has granted Hezbollah a de facto legitimacy, to the point where Hezbollah leaders can seize the headlines by agreeing to a multi-national force deployed in southern Lebanon to keep the two combatants apart. To the extent that Hezbollah acts as a proxy for Syrian or Iranian ambitions, Israel has also shown how it can be baited into an overreaction, something that both Syrian and Iranian leaders can certainly use to their own advantage.
For these, and a few other reasons I'd mention if I had more time to write this post, the action (retaliation) is not producing the political result desired. Hezbollah may have lost a significant number of its fighters, but it stands to gain politically in ways that counterbalance any manpower or material losses.
However, it's not merely the defenders of Israel who can't put the moral discussion on a firm, factual basis. A similar discussion in Kenneth Anderson's blog talks as if just war doctrine should be applied the same way to all forms of conflict. Anderson makes some excellent points, such as these:
That said, much of the comment on proportionality in Israel's war aims
in the Lebanon conflict has been based around the assumption that it
must be proportional to the immediate incidents which sparked
retaliation - the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers as hostages and the
most immediate rocket attacks upon civilians. As noted above as a
matter of moral theory, the response to aggression is not predicated
upon the triggering incident, but instead upon the threat presented -
the evaluation of which lies in the hands of a state and its leadership.
That said, much of the comment on proportionality in Israel's war aims in the Lebanon conflict has been based around the assumption that it must be proportional to the immediate incidents which sparked retaliation - the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers as hostages and the most immediate rocket attacks upon civilians. As noted above as a matter of moral theory, the response to aggression is not predicated upon the triggering incident, but instead upon the threat presented - the evaluation of which lies in the hands of a state and its leadership.
However, Anderson gets so bogged down in just war theory that you emerge from his discussion with little sense of how you'd apply it to this particular conflict. Sure, the sporadic rocket attacks themselves don't rise to the level of a severe cassus belli, but do the attacks in toto (along with kidnappings and cross-border raids) amount to a severe threat to Israel? And, just as importantly, is Israel's strategy actually going to make it safer? If you read first-hand accounts of the war in Lebanon, such as this heart-breaking piece from Salon, you'd be a cold soul if you did not ask the obvious question: What justifies this level of bloodshed and destruction, suffered as much by civilians as Hezbollah fighters?
Crooked Timber hits closer to the mark, but this post isn't exactly a bullseye. While the "war of the flea" doesn't give guerrillas and terrorists a carte blanche, it'd be silly to take the counterargument--kidnapping and hiding among civilians--is always wrong. How different is the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers from the normal taking of prisoners in wartime? The distinction may be there, but it's not as clear-cut as some might think. How could guerrillas operate at all, if they did not, to use Mao's famous phrase, swim like revolutionary fish amidst the sea of the population? As this post from Obsidian Wings said, "I'm not certain how to best approach the problem of fighting an asymmetric opponent, but I'm certain that strengthening his strengths and shoring up his weaknesses isn't the ideal way to go about it."
Certainly, making it difficult for the "revolutionary fish" to hide is a lot different than boiling the sea until everything in it dies. Ultimately, we come back to the basic problem with Israel's strategy: it's not justified, morally or practically, for the result it's achieving. Hezbollah's "back" won't be "broken." Israel has made its case that Hezbollah is still a state-within-a-state, but it hasn't helped the Lebanese state to deal with this problem. Instead, it has done the reverse, plunged a country that had recovered from one of the nastiest civil wars back into something resembling those dark days. Lebanon has not regressed all the way back to where it was in 1983, with Druze, Shi'ite, and Christian militias warrning unchecked with one another. However, having failed to descend to the ninth level of hell doesn't make the first level of hell any less pleasant for the people living there.