Saturday, July 15, 2006

The danger of "proportionality" in war

Now, how could proportionality in war be dangerous?

First, before I attempt an answer to that question, here's a great post by Betsy Newmark (via the Anchoress) on the widespread European international community's condemnation of Israel's response to the attacks from Hezbollah as "disproportionate."

She writes:

I wish that the next time some leader comes out and starts talking about Israel's "disproportionate response" that the journalists would ask them what their definition of a proportionate response would be if some terrorists were sending rockets into their own cities. Perhaps their own citizens might be interested in knowning how these intrepid leaders would respond if they were being attacked.

I'm not so sure many of their own citizens would even ask the question, since many may believe that their own relative chumminess with Iran and the Palestinians would guarantee them immunity. And perhaps their own knowledge that their country's leaders might not respond in an especially muscular manner to any attack on their own soil is what leads to the tactic of appeasement in the first place.

Sort of like paying hush money to the Mafia, in hopes that it won't target your business. I'd call it a vicious cycle of nonviolence.

But, leaving Europe aside for a moment, what is this larger idea of proportionality in war, anyway? Oh, don't misunderstand me (although of course some of you will). I'm not one of those people who advocates a truly disproportionate response, such as Israel nuking Tehran.

But I do wonder what's happened to the notion and definition and expectation of war. What am I talking about? It comes down--as so many things in life seem to--to the idea of responsibility, and of consequences (see here).

In the old days, the idea of fear of a nasty response from a well-armed power often acted as a deterrent (remember that word?) to attacking that country. In fact, that was one of the reasons countries had armies and weapons--not necessarily to use them, but to keep from having to use them very often; to keep themselves from being overrun and attacked, to defend its citizens. And the best way to defend them would be to not even have to defend them, but to just use the threat of a response in defense. And to be threatening, it helped if that threat was somewhat unpredictable in its force and scope.

In the olden days (which weren't so very long ago) responses were seldom (if ever?) discussed in terms of proportionality. Perhaps the beginning of the "proportionality" argument came with the invention of nuclear weaponry. For the first time, we had the ability to mount a truly disproportionate response to provocation, one that would threaten the entire world. So it became common sense to understand that not every attack would be met with the full panoply of weapons in the arsenal. And history has played out that way: the first time atomic weapons were used, Hiroshima/Nagasaki, was the last. So far, of course.

I'm not a student of military history, but it's not my impression that every attack was met with an all-out response even prior to nuclear weapons. But the limiting factor then was not the mouthing of platitudinous, self-serving advice from other nations; but, rather, the practical and strategic decisions of the attacked nation itself. Each nation would do what it determined necessary to end the threat--no more and no less. Sometimes it would miscalculate, of course. But the idea was that a sovereign nation had a right to defend itself to the best of its ability and its own judgment, and everyone knew that.

And that knowledge probably served to prevent many asymmetrical attacks. "The Mouse That Roared" notwithstanding, weak countries didn't tend to attack the strong; it would be suicidal. But asymmetrical warfare is now not only chic, but it's actively encouraged by this idea of "proportionality," which ties the gigantic Gullivers of the world (such as that mean old, bad old US and its vile mini-me, Israel) down with many tiny ropes.

It's in the interests of those with less power, and fewer arms, to advance the doctrine of "proportionality." This evens the playing field, something like a handicap in golf, and makes the game better sport for those with fewer skills. The concept of proportionality comes, no doubt, at least partly from fear of a truly disproportionate response; from some sort of concern for the weak. But it also comes from a disproportionate concern that weaker, third-world countries shouldn't be disadvantaged in any way because of their weakness, that they should be allowed to attack a stronger nation with relative impunity because, after all, they're weaker; and, after all, they're "brown;" and, after all, the West is imperialist and guilty; and, after all...and on and on.

But war is not a game of golf. And leveling the playing field doesn't make for more fun. It makes for the emboldenment of tyrants in the third world. It makes for lengthy, drawn-out conflicts that never seem to end or be resolved. It buys time for countries such as Iran to gain power and become contenders by acquiring the most disproportionate weaponry of all, the nuclear variety.

And, when Iran reaches that goal, I wonder whether it will listen to Europe's bleats about "proportionality." Somehow, I don't think so. After all, Iran has no western guilt to expiate.

[ADDENDUM: By the way, I'm aware that the concept of "proportionality" is traditionally part of Just War theory. Note (if you'll follow the link) the introduction, defining when Just War theory might or might not be applicable. Also, the definition of "proportionality" in any given circumstance depends, of course, on the eye--and politics--of the beholder.]

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