American support for Israel’s Gaza operation

Walter Russell Mead has a thought-provoking interpretation of American support for Israel in its military response in Gaza: Americans don’t really believe in just war theory or proportionality in the conduct of war because of the circumstances of our national development. He links this to the prevalent “Jacksonian” attitude toward foreign policy in the US:

The European just war tradition springs in part from the reality that historically in Europe war was an affair of kings and rulers that hurt the little people without doing anything for them. Peasants really didn’t care whether the Duke of Burgundy or the Count of Anjou was recognized as the rightful overlord of their village, and moralists and theologians worked to limit the violence that the dukes and the counts and their henchmen wreaked on the poor peasants caught up in a quarrel that wasn’t theirs.

With no feudal past in this country, Americans have tended to see wars as wars of peoples rather than wars of elites and in a war of peoples the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate targets tends to collapse. The German civilian (male or female) making weapons for Hitler’s Wehrmacht was as much a part of the enemy’s warmaking potential as the soldier at the front. Furthermore, in a war of peoples in which civilians are implicated in the conflict, the health and morale of the civilian population is a legitimate target of war. This justified the blockades against the Confederacy and against Germany and German occupied Europe during the world wars, and it also justified the mass terror bombing raids of World War Two in which the destruction of enemy morale was one of the stated aims.

This is the same logic by which someone like Osama bin Laden could justify his attacks on civilians at the World Trade Center, and it is the fundamental logic behind Hamas’ indiscriminate attacks on Israeli civilian targets. Americans don’t like it when their enemies use this kind of logic, but it is a type of warfare they understand and they have fought and won enough of these wars in the past to be ready if necessary to do it again.

From this perspective, in which war is an elemental struggle between peoples rather than a kind of knightly duel between courtly elites, the concept of proportionality seems much less compelling. Certainly if some kind of terrorist organization were to set up missile factories across the frontier in Canada and Mexico and start attacking targets in the United States, the American people would demand that their President use all necessary force without stint or limit until the resistance had been completely, utterly and pitilessly crushed. Those Americans who share this view of war might feel sorrow at the loss of innocent life, of the children and non-combatants killed when overwhelming American power was used to take the terrorists out, but they would feel no moral guilt. The guilt would be on the shoulders of those who started the whole thing by launching the missiles.

In his review of Mead’s Special Providence, Peter Leithart summarizes Mead’s category of “Jacksonian” attitudes: “that government exists for the protection of the governed. Both domestically and in foreign policy, American should use its power to provide physical security and ensure prosperity for American citizens. Honor is a central value for Jacksonian cowboys, and when American honor is assaulted, Jacksonians make war with the fullest fury they can muster.”

Some time ago, Mead also wrote about why Americans support Israel in general, which I blogged about here.



  1. Wow. Is Mead accurately representing the jus in bello principle of proportionality? Tit-for-tat proportionate force seems insane. I thought proportionality was about morally weighing collateral damage.

    The line between civilian and combatant might not be as bright as it once was, but the basic principle stands that less contribution to the war implies a less legitimate target. Israel clearly abides by this scale, while Hamas does not — a key feature of terrorism.

    Because of that, I don’t see how Mead can say that Hamas uses the same logic as Americans. Hamas attacks Israelis randomly without specific provocation or warning. Israel certainly responds with overwhelming force, but it actually notifies Palestinians of its targets. This greatly reduces Israel’s culpability for collateral damage, which speaks directly to proportionality as I understand it, making the degree of “unlimited force” fairly irrelevant, contrary to Mead’s analysis.

    I think the moral outrage at Israel is primary a matter of narrative: people believe that Israel forcefully conquered Palestine and kicked them out, and moreover that Israel oppresses what Palestinians remain in the “occupied territories”. By their moral calculus, the Israelis have no option but to incorporate the Palestinians or abandon the land altogether. Until then, attacks against Israel are always justified. Americans simply do not share that interpretation of events (in addition to religious reasons).

  2. I think that you’re right about proportionality, and Mead is wrong:

    I still think that Mead’s analysis about wars between people’s vs. wars between governments is apt.

    I think that what he means about the parallel between Hamas/AQ and American logic is that we haven’t always used the just war distinction between civilians and soldiers, especially in the bombing of cities in World War II. I don’t think that it’s the exact same thing, but there are some commonalities. Israel does seem to take more precautions.

  3. Yeah, I agree with you — the civilian/soldier and people/state distinction is all messed up. And it only gets worse with democracies. I was reminded of WW2, too — e.g. the leaflet drops preceding US nukes.

    Daniel Larison corrects Mead on proportionality and then proceeds to say it is not proportional “by any reckoning”! I’ve asked Daniel to show his work regarding his reckoning. I don’t usually get replies, though.

    As I said, foreknowledge of the legitimate targets has a huge impact on the moral calculus. Palestinians become culpable for collateral damage.

    I heard a Israeli Deputy Ambassador on CNN imply that Israel is averaging 1 unintentional kill for 1 targeted kill.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s