Monday, July 24, 2006

On Proportionality

There has been a lot of talk about Israel and "proportionality" lately. This has been mainly in the form of criticism against Israel. Israel, the charge goes, is using a disproportionate amount of force against Hezbollah.

This charge is mistaken, and was most likely thought up by someone who took a philosophy class about 30 years ago, and pretty much forgot everything he or she learned, and merely remembered a soundbyte. I say this because a standard doctrine of the theory of Just War is proportionality. And in some ways this seems fairly reasonable. Not that I really think it is a great criterion, but since Aquinas people have been taking this seriously and giving it serious thought, so for the moment so will I.

The reason I say that whoever first used this argument in the context of the current Israel-Hezbolla conflict took a philosophy class 30 years ago, is because the word "proportionality" is bandied about a lot in the context of debates about wars. It is taken seriously by scholars, and there is a reasonable intuition behind it.

However, the reason I claim that the person who originally talked about this must have forgotten everything else he learned in that class is because the way proportionality is being used, is not the way that the just war theorists talk about it.

The claim being made is that Israel is using disproportionate force against Hezbollah. However the concept of "proportionate" in just war theory is not interested in proportionate force against some enemy. What they are interested in proportionate force toward the aim that it is being used for. The theory of just war is interested in making sure you don't use nuclear weapons to sove a trade dispute, or to save the life of one of your soldiers. It is not made sure that you are evenly matched with the force you are fighting.

That is why US UN ambassador John Bolton (together, I assume, with anyone who understands just war theory) would be baffled at someone offering the proportionality argument. Bolton's response summs up our puzzlement well: "I don't quite know what the argument about proportionate force means here. Is Israel entitled only to kidnap two Hezbollah operatives and fire a couple of rockets aimlessly into Lebanon?"

Proportionality is not about tit-for-tat fighting. It is not about making sure that whatever you do to me, I do back to you. That is reprisal fighting - something that I am sure would be condemned too if Israel were doing it. Proportionality is not about making sure that you are evenly matched with your enemy. No sane responsible leader goes in to a battle evenly matched, thinking that they are merely going to inflict the same damage as was done to them. You go in to any engagement with enough force to decisevely force a victory. (The US likes a 3:1 (or is it 4:1?) ratio of force superiority.)

Proportionality in the application of just war is about two things: First making sure that you are only using the minimum amount of force to achieve your objectives - like not trying to take out a terrorist organization by killing everyone in the country it lives in. And second, it is about making sure the benefits are proportional to the costs of the engagement, like making sure that weakening an enemy on your border is worth a small high-intensity military engagement.

Proportionality seeks to make sure that if you have a responsible military goal, you don't unnecessarily deliberately kill a whole lot of other people to obtain it.

Proportionality is certainly not about tallying up the casuality list on both sides to see if one is bigger than the other. That is a morbid thing that media and propoganda groups do to made a point that has little moral relevance, but seems to make some people feel self-righteous.

So the guy remembered a soundbyte, and millions of people are repeating it without having to give the slightest thought to how much sense it makes. Any military engagement in history that has had a winner was disproportionate in the way the current argument runs, because one is doing more damage than the other. That is why no intelligent person would make that argumet.


Shosh said...

Good points--I was trying to find words for my intuitive sense that the argument of disproportionate force in this case was a dumb one.

oh, and nice blog makeover :)

Karl said...

There is actually another argument that I am reluctant to make in the context of a post, but it seems like there is an argument from the prevalence of suicide bombing that in light of military goals, Arabs do not value Arab lives all that much. Certainly not as much as Israel, or any other culture, that would not use suicide techniques, even under the most dire of circumstances.

Thus, hupothetically to make up some number, if Arabs value their own lives 1/100th of what Israelis value theirs, then if in the context of a military engagement, if 100 Hezbollah people die to each Israeli then it actually is proportionate in that sense.

You can actually argue the same from Hezbollah's use of human shields: that knowing that civilians will be targeted, they value negative press for Israel more than their the lives of the school children they hide behind.

Thirdly you can argue from the fact that they believe that 2 Israeli hostages are worth 1000 Palestinian and Hezbollah prisoners, they they realize their percieved difference in value of human life.

Thus, one can argue that Israel is killing far less Hezbollah, once you factor for the subjective vaule placed on each by themselves.

30 said...

proportionality should not be measured by the damage of what was already done (2 soldiers kidnapped) but by the threat of what could be done in the future (major crisis in the region)