Published on November 19th, 2012 | by Daniel Luban5
Walter Russell Mead Should say what he Means
This weekend, Ariel Sharon’s son Gilad published an instantly-notorious op-ed in which he called for Israel to abandon any attempt to distinguish combatants from civilians and “flatten all of Gaza” — a proposal of genocide or something close to it. The same day, however, saw the publication of another piece that was slightly more understated but arguably more striking, in that it came from Walter Russell Mead, a pillar of the East Coast foreign policy establishment who takes pains to market himself as a skeptical moderate. Mead suggested that although foreigners might take umbrage with Israel’s current assault on Gaza, “Americans” — or at least the red-blooded Jacksonian Americans about whom he frequently rhapsodizes — do not. Scorning the principle of proportionality (which he glosses as “[i]f the other guy comes at you with a stick, you can’t pull a knife”), “Americans” have a different view:
An endless war of limited intensity is worse, many Americans instinctively feel, than a time-limited war of unlimited ferocity. A crushing blow that brings an end to the war—like General Sherman’s march of destruction through the Confederacy in 1864-65—is ultimately kinder even to the vanquished than an endless state of desultory war….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.
He continues on in this vein, and by the end of the piece (where he rants about “the appalling blood lust of the unhinged loons who start a war they can’t win, and then cower behind the corpses of the children their foolishness has killed”) one can practically feel the spittle flying across one’s face through the computer screen.
We might note, first of all, that Mead seems to have no idea what “proportionality” means under the laws of war. It does not mean that “if the other guy comes at you with a stick, you can’t pull a knife,” an absurd proposition that would forbid any party from deploying superior technology on the battlefield. In the ius in bello context, which is what Mead is discussing, proportionality means that one is forbidden to use tactics that would cause an excessive amount of civilian collateral damage. (Indeed, it is this prohibition on indiscriminate attacks — enshrined in the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, Article 51 — that makes Hamas’s rocket attacks war crimes in their own right.) Mead’s visible contempt for international law does not seem to rest on even a passing familiarity with what it actually says.
What’s more striking is Mead’s apparent endorsement of the sort of bloodbath that Gilad Sharon has proposed. As usual, it’s difficult to pin Mead down, since in a typically cowardly and evasive manner he insists on attributing his views to “the American people” rather than arguing for them outright. (I’ve discussed his fallacious pro-Israel boosterism and overstatement of American popular support for Israel in this context before.) Rather than emitting yet another paean to the folksy wisdom of Jacksonian America, perhaps Mead would serve his readership better by stating explicitly what he’s proposing. Does he agree with his stylized version of the American people that Israel should “completely, utterly, and pitilessly” crush resistance in Gaza? Why or why not?