Tuesday, February 26, 2008

On proportionality, again

As more and more rockets come down on the Israeli town of Sderot, I was thinking about Israel’s response to the rockets a year and a half ago. I remember Israel being charged with having a disproportionate response to the shelling by Israel’s bombing in south Lebanon. I thought at the time that this was an absurd claim, and I still do. Today, Bret Stephens has a column on the proportionality calculus which essentially says that there is no proportional way for Israel to reasonably respond to the rocket attacks.

I agree. I think that there are two connected reasons why the demand for Israel's response to be "proportional" is absurd.

First, it took me about a year to realize the following irony about proportionality. Proportionality is not a value in either Jewish or Islamic notions of just war. So there is an attack by an Islamic group, a response by a Jewish group and these Christian “moral thinkers” telling the Jews that they are not adhering to Christian principles of just war in the engagement.

Does anyone else hear “cultural imperialism”?

Did I miss Augusine’s authorial hand in the Geneva Conventions?

Again, while the light of intuition might claim that some kind of proportionality ought to be a part of any theory of just war, there are more and less reasonable versions of what it can be. The ones claimed last summer were the ridiculous ones. But even so, there is no a priori version of what is to count as proportional and what is not.

Like I mentioned last summer, it is clear that sending a nuclear weapon to solve a minor trade dispute is disproportional. But on the other hand, Israel, for all its shelling, did not achieve the status quo ante, which is the goal of proportionality, to do just enough to rectify the situation. Israel did not get its soldiers back. Assuming that there is a chance that they can somehow accomplish this with enough military action, they have not yet even put up a “proportional” fight. Israel still has way more fighting to go till they hit “proportional”. So there is no clear line that makes it easy to understand what it would be to be proportional.

It seems like legalistic religions like Judaism and Islam don’t have to deal with these line-drawing problems. They have rules telling them how and when they fight. Christianity, which is more (for the lack of a better word) theologico-philosophical, and less legal, has to first answer these questions about what proportionality is before it can come to an understanding of who is in the right on the in bello issues. (And anyone who knows what the phrase “conceptual analysis” means knows that there is no way to figure out what “proportional” is.)

This kind of thinking then just encourages Christian thinkers to work their way backward - first decide who you don’t like. Then draw your line so that the side you are initially prejudiced against looses.

Which takes me to the second reason. What we really see from this is that despite the intuition that we need some sort of proportional response, proportionality is most likely incoherent. There are just too many real cases where a country has no feasible response if it is to act proportionally. Obviously you can't tell a country that it just has to let its citizens get shelled and killed because the country has no options that meet your moral standards.

It also seems obvious that asking some "Christian" European country (or collection thereof) to go in and solve this problem in some way that they deem proportional will not work. After all, it was their colonialist meddling incursions in the Middle East that started these problems in the first place.

So I take it that from a moral perspective, the problem is unsolvable given the Just War paradigm that thinkers who operate in a Christian tradition use. That means that their condemnatory rhetoric is merely that - rhetoric. Rhetoric that agitates against one side for not solving an intractable problem merely reflects a prejudice against that side. Moreover, I see this as an argument for political realism in this case.


Anonymous said...

excellent article, and a great post. I have nothing to add because you said it all. But thanks for the link.


30 said...

you are making this sound as though this was some religious issue, but it isnt--from either side. people who call for proportionality arent doing so from a Christian perspective. and the Israeli army certainly doesnt have the rules of Judaism in mind when it does anything. are you saying that anyone with an intuition that the Palestinian civilians are getting the short end of the stick here is a "cultural imperialist"? while i suspect that what Israel is doing is its only option, to raise the question of whether some retaliatory responses may be disproportionate is merely being humane.

further, israel really fucked up in lebanon. the "pissed off bear in the china shop" approach didnt work then and may not be in israel's best interest now. i certainly wish that bystander kids didnt get killed as they often do, and it would be nice if more jews had more sympathy for them (and i dont mean lip cervice sympathy). rather than getting pissed of
and striking back with great military force which very often results in great loss of life, developing a more competent and long term solutions is greatly preferable, in my opinion. for example building a wall was a
long-term measured response that accomplished its goal of reducing
terrorism with minimum casualties on both sides. again, while i think
israel is now doing what it needs to do i would love to see less violent solutions.

Anonymous said...

Clearly the Israel-Muslim conflict is not a religious issue. (definitely not for Israel.)

The rhetoric about how a war is fought is in the first place an ethical one. However, neither Israel nor the Muslims she is fighting have proportionality within their ethical traditions. Proportionality is only an intuitive restriction on how one prosecutes a war if you take it to be one. That said, only westerners who have a Christian-derived ethical perspective have proportionality as a value. There are many restrictions you can put on how to fight, and the ones you insist on reveal your cultural bias. Insisting that I do ethics on your terms is cultural imperialism on your part. None of that speaks to who is getting the short-end.

How well Israel did in Lebanon is another story entirely. I strongly suspect that given the way things are now, there is no immediately available good long-term solution that can satisfy both sides. That being said, I sympathize with the innocent victims on both sides. However, the pacifist response that given that there is no long term-easy solution, less violence is called for, really does not solve anything. There is no wall big enough to stop rocket attacks, and dialog with Hezbullah, or Hamas rarely gets anywhere. Both sides have to deal with a myriad of concerns like staying safe, staying in power . . .

The ethical rhetoric ought to reflect that instead of throwing around mere platitudes.


bec said...

can i hire you to argue with my liberal brother? please? :D