I’ve been thinking back on some of the online disputes I’ve been having about Israel’s attack on Gaza, and it occurred to me that what’s missing from a lot of this is context. Not further context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but further context on the use of force in general. The main folks I’ve been arguing with — Jon Chait, Martin Peretz, Michael Goldfarb — are all guys who, I believe, think even in retrospect that support for the invasion of Iraq is nothing worth regretting. And certainly Peretz and Goldfarb were cheerleaders for the 2006 Israeli action in Lebanon, though I don’t remember what Chait thought.
For my part, I think having supported the Iraq invasion is very much worth regretting and over the past five years I’ve changed a lot of my thinking about national security policy and war and peace in general. I was skeptical of the merits of Israel’s attack on Lebanon, skeptical about Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia, skeptical about Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia, and skeptical about Russia’s furious counter-attack on Georgia. Long story short, I’m strongly inclined to believe that political actors are much too eager to believe that the aggressive use of military force will accomplish their objectives, and also inclined to believe that political actors are much too eager to believe that bloodshed is morally justifiable.
But put in a different, more hawkish context, I’d say what Israel is doing in Gaza is certainly better-justified than what the United States did in Iraq. The threat of Hamas rocket fire wasn’t just a made-up pretext. And the operation seems a lot better-conceived than the one in Lebanon. So given our different prior commitments, I’m not sure I’m having any particularly seriously disagreements with those folks about the particulars of this armed clash or even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict writ large. Or, rather, I’m not sure that such disagreements are really the key drivers of disagreement about this specific thing.
Relatedly, something I’ve heard from fans of this attack is rhetorical questions along the lines of “what would the United States do if we were being attacked by rockets from Mexico or Canada?” Of course with such hypotheticals, it’s always hard to specify the issue correctly. I assume if someone shot a rocket across the Canadian border in the general direction of Seattle that the Canadian government would arrest the guy. But you actually don’t need to get very hypothetical to ask what the United States would do if people felt themselves threatened by foreign killers — we’d do exactly what we did in 2002-2003, namely engage in a panicky, counterproductive, and immoral overreaction driven more by emotion, ego, and politics than by sound thinking about the situation. So I don’t really find it surprising that Israel is reacting in this way.
By somewhat the same token, I do read in the comments section what I would regard as a disproportionate level of shock and appalledness from some quarters about Israeli activities as if this action is some kind of unprecedented outrage in human history. The real outrage is how common and banal, how unsurprising and thoroughly precedented it is.