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.