January 3, 2009

Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war

By: David Polansky

Some thoughts for those reading the Sonny and Freddie imbroglio (the bloggers, not the Corleones):

I see a bit of a problem not uncommon to the blogosphere of two serious people talking past one another. Freddie is concerned with the problem of civilian casualties; Sonny is weighing the two combatants morally and finds the Palestinians wanting.

Taking Sonny’s position first, I think there is a bit of willful obtuseness on his part in addressing Israel’s handling of collateral damage. At this point in the struggle, civilian casulaties are built into almost any action Israel takes — not merely because Hamas “hides amongst its own people,” but because Gaza encompasses less than 140 square miles, and Israel is conducting air strikes over one of the most heavily populated areas on Earth (nor will the ground invasion much improve matters in this area, I think).

The Israelis understand this. They are not naifs. It is almost mistaken to speak of accidental civilian casualties at this point, because the Israelis can expect with near absolute certainty that its attacks, however precise, will generate such casualties. That they are not actively targeting such civilians is somewhat beside the point — unless the only point is to demonstrate Israel’s moral superiority to Hamas, which is a given.

The obvious rejoinder, that Israel has a right to respond militarily when rockets are fired into its territory from Gaza, also misses the point. That one is justified in responding when provoked, does not mean one should respond. As Brzezinski once grumbled, world politics is not a kindergarten. Military action is not undertaken out of mere justification, but in the interest of achieving certain strategic gains. Such considerations go a long way toward preventing military engagements from degenerating into total war.

The sheer unlikeliness of a positive outcome to this round (from Israel’s standpoint) only increases the moral burden on its leaders for the casualties on all sides.

If Freddie’s post also remains rather unsatisfying, I suspect it is because he is on the whole more interested in preserving his own delicate moral position than in seriously considering the strategic concerns of the actors involved on the ground. But then, most discussions in this country about the Israel-Palestine conflict have more to do with ourselves than with Israelis or Palestinians.