Israeli-Lebanon Conflict (2005)

2007 03 26
And you want to lecture people on balance?


Michael Walzer, long-time fan of my work, has an exchange with a critic in a recent edition of Dissent Magazine about Walzer’s attitude to Israel. I’m not familiar enough with Walzer’s recent writings on Israel to judge the critic’s case, but I can’t help noticing that Walzer’s response is not very strong.

Walzer gets off to a bad start with his take on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Perhaps the low point of this part of the discussion is when Walzer ties himself in knots trying to argue that Israel’s behaviour, “however much one criticizes the harshness” is “reactive.” Since Walzer sternly condemns the occupation, and the long, sordid history of illegal land-theft and collective punishment, the reader can only wonder how this is supposed to be a useful description of matters in the occupied territories, or indeed what exactly it would take, on Walzer’s view, for Palestinian violence to similarly qualify as “reactive.”

As it happens, I’m much more sympathetic to Walzer’s view of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute than I am to his reading of the Second Lebanon War of last summer. As in any war, the ambitions and intentions on both sides were fairly complex. But I think your head needs to have been pretty far up your ass last summer not to notice that one important aim of Israeli policy was to try to drive a wedge between Hezbollah and the rest of Lebanon by inflicting a high level of suffering on Lebanese civilians.

Walzer admits that “[s]ome Israeli strategists certainly hoped that the punishment of the civilian population would have a good political effect,” adding that “others warned that it almost certainly would not.” But again, it certainly seemed at the time the civilian and military officials calling the shots were following the advice of the first group of strategists. I doubt that these strategists were right, but I’ll leave it better informed people to make the final call on that. Moral judgment, in this case, is a bit less complex: Inflicting massive suffering on Lebanese civilians in order to apply pressure indirectly on Hizbollah was wrong, for all the same reasons that blowing up civilians in pizza shops or crowded buses in order to effect changes in Israeli policy is wrong.

Walzer makes a few other points that are, to my mind, pretty weak. But don’t take it from me. You can read Walzer’s response yourself, and make up your own mind. My point here is just to report an impression: Walzer’s response bears a very strong resemblance to the lame “yes, but” style of apologetics for Palestinian terrorism that Walzer has little difficulty seeing through. I certainly don’t envy Israel its enemies, and I also think that sorting through the moral complexities of modern Middle Eastern politics is a demanding job for even the most fair-minded philosopher. But Walzer, it’s pretty clear, isn’t that philosopher.

Anyway, notice the moment of unintentional comedy at the end of Walzer’s response when Walzer complains about his critic’s attempt to distinguish him from his friend, Martin Peretz. If I were trying to establish my impartiality on the issue of Israel, I don’t think I would want to go out of my way to associate myself with Peretz, of all people.


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2006 07 20
Moral equivalence, and all that


Here is Michael Young, not a guy given to drammatic or foolish claims:

The Israelis have not�or not yet�bombed the electricity grid serving Beirut and the areas north of it, so there is still running water. However, they have begun to attack large trucks, on the grounds that they might be carrying Hezbollah rockets. As a result, truck drivers are terrified of taking to the roads, making the movement of medical and other emergency supplies all the more laborious.
[. . . ]
But this time, the attacks are also more alarming, because they are not limited, as they were then, to a sector of the capital. All of Lebanon is a target; all access roads, airports, and ports have been blocked or are in constant danger of being attacked, and a much larger swath of civilians are in danger. According to eyewitnesses in southern Lebanon, including journalist friends of mine, the destruction of villages is the worse they’ve ever seen�both intense and systematic�and it’s not Hezbollah that is usually on the receiving end of the ordnance, it is civilians. Much the same is taking place away from the cameras in the northern Beqaa Valley, another majority-Shiite area. As for the Hezbollah stronghold in the Haret Hreik quarter of Beirut’s southern suburbs, it has been reduced to dust. While this may have made it a legitimate objective, the suburbs have probably the highest concentration of inhabitants in Beirut, and virtually everybody has fled.
[. . .]
The politics of a settlement are complicated. Israel initially said its attacks were an effort to secure the release of its two kidnapped soldiers and to disarm Hezbollah. The latter objective, as even Israeli officials now recognize, is not achievable. No state will try seizing the party’s arms by force, nor is that feasible at this stage, and Hezbollah will not surrender them willingly. That’s why the Israeli strategy at first hand appears to be much simpler: to impose an abysmally high blood tax on the Lebanese in general, and Shiites in particular, so Hezbollah will not again think of kidnapping its soldiers or bombarding its territory.

And see also Matthew Yglesias’s comments on this.

OK, so here is my question: In what ways does this differ morally from a policy of suicide bombing directed against civilians? Here are the rules:

1. If you don’t think they differ morally, then I probably already know what you think. Try to exercise your ingenuity by focusing on the moral differences, lest it turn into one of those threads.

2. Don’t tell me that Young is simply mistaken about the facts. Assume that he’s right for the sake of argument.

3. Don’t point to the justice of Israeli war aims or to Hezbollah’s provocations. You may be entirely right, but you’ll also be missing the point. Most of us (quite rightly) insist that the policy of suicide bombing could not be justified by an appeal to the justice of the Palestinian cause. We insist on this because we (quite rightly) distinguish between just aims and just means. The issue here is the means, not the ends.

4. Be polite.


Howls of outrage (25)

2006 07 19
What to do? What to do?


Confused about how to stop the carnage in the Middle East? It’s actually pretty simple. Take it away, Charlie K!

The road to a solution is therefore clear: Israel liberates south Lebanon and gives it back to the Lebanese.

It starts by preparing the ground with air power, just as the Persian Gulf War began with a 40-day air campaign. But if all that happens is the air campaign, the result will be failure. Hezbollah will remain in place, Israel will remain under the gun, Lebanon will remain divided and unfree. And this war will start again at a time of Hezbollah and Iran’s choosing.

Just as in Kuwait in 1991, what must follow the air campaign is a land invasion to clear the ground and expel the occupier. Israel must retake south Lebanon and expel Hezbollah. It would then declare the obvious: that it has no claim to Lebanese territory and is prepared to withdraw and hand south Lebanon over to the Lebanese army (augmented perhaps by an international force), thus finally bringing about what the world has demanded — implementation of Resolution 1559 and restoration of south Lebanon to Lebanese sovereignty.

It must be difficult for deep thinkers like Krauthammer to distill so much wisdom into the short space of a newspaper column. Still, I can’t help wishing he had some opportunity (a blog?) to unpack this argument a bit for the squeamish. To pick the obvious difficulty here, I wonder if expelling Hezbollah from Lebanon might be harder to actually do than it is for Krauthammer to dream up and set down in words. How much harder? Hmmmmm, here’s where it would be helpful to have Mr. K explain why this time would be easier than last time. You know, with an argument. The deep integration of Hezbollah into the South of Lebanon means that expelling it would require a massively bloody, protracted military campaign with widespread civilian carnage and destruction of property, so Krauthammer can’t possibly have that in mind, can he?

But there I go doubting again. And you know, that’s the real problem here. It’s not that the roots of the problem go far deeper than Hezbollah, or that more energetic and far less scrupulous killing would have effects difficult to contain, some easily forseeable and some not. It’s that doubters lack will:

Only two questions remain: Israel’s will and America’s wisdom.

That, in a nutshell, is the American right’s response to most doubts about the prudence of its policy prescriptions: the problem is not with the conflict between the prescription and reality, but rather between reality and our own hearts. Root out all doubt and the rest will follow . . . just as it did in Iraq, where schools are being painted as we speak and children of all faiths join hands and sing pro-American songs all the live long day.


Howls of outrage (4)

2006 07 17
Stop doing this shit, and it’s over


Oops. Someone left a microphone on:

“The irony is, what they really need to do is to get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it’s over,” Mr Bush was heard to say.

In a nice touch, the BBC is careful to note that it was Mr. Blair who eventually noticed that the microphone was on.

I sometimes wonder if Matthew Yglesias overdoes it when he claims that Republicans are working within a conceptual framework which simply can’t accomodate many features of Middle Eastern radicalism. But presumably Bush is parroting something someone he trusts told him about the problem, so I think this little unguarded moment is fairly revealing.

I don’t doubt that the connections between Syria, Iran and Hezbollah are potentially quite illuminating. But along with many other observers, I’m inclined to suspect that Hezbollah has its own agenda, is aware that its interests don’t coincide with any other state players, and would not disappear were state players to withdraw support altogether. Nor would any of the underlying problems in the region be “over” if Hezbollah vanished in a poof of malevolent smoke overnight.

I could be wrong about this, or Bush could, but either way I think there’s a serious difference of analysis here. It’s revealing of a larger difference in how different sides of this debate understand the way the world works.


Howls of outrage (8)