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Disproportionate Criticism:

Second Thoughts from Richard Cohen

by Carlos

July 18, 2006 - In a complete about-face from his previous column just one week ago, Richard Cohen has written a passionate defense of Israel's conduct in the Hezbollah war.

In his earlier column Cohen said that Israel should admit its creation was a "mistake," and he made a point of "cautioning Israel to exercise restraint." He concluded that Israel's best course would be not to fight back hard but to "hunker down" and try to weather the storm.

In today's article Cohen takes an entirely different tone. He explodes the criticism of Israel's "disproportionate" response rather eloquently:

The dire consequences of proportionality are so clear that it makes you wonder if it is a fig leaf for anti-Israel sentiment in general. Anyone who knows anything about the Middle East knows that proportionality is madness. For Israel, a small country within reach, as we are finding out, of a missile launched from any enemy's back yard, proportionality is not only inapplicable, it is suicide. The last thing it needs is a war of attrition. It is not good enough to take out this or that missile battery. It is necessary to reestablish deterrence: You slap me, I will punch out your lights.

The new style of war, relying so heavily on missiles, makes "proportionality" practically irrelevant:

It's clear now that those boundaries - a wall, a fence, a whatever - are immaterial when it comes to missiles. Hezbollah, with the aid of Iran and Syria, has shown that it is no longer necessary to send a dazed suicide bomber over the border - all that is needed is the requisite amount of thrust and a warhead. That being the case, it's either stupid or mean for anyone to call for proportionality. The only way to ensure that babies don't die in their cribs and old people in the streets is to make the Lebanese or the Palestinians understand that if they, no matter how reluctantly, host those rockets, they will pay a very, very steep price.

Cohen points out the hypocrisy of these calls for "proportionality":

Israel is, as I have often said, unfortunately located, gentrifying a pretty bad neighborhood. But the world is full of dislocated peoples, and we ourselves live in a country where the Indians were pushed out of the way so that - oh, what irony! - the owners of slaves could spread liberty and democracy from sea to shining sea. As for Europe, who today cries for the Greeks of Anatolia or the Germans of Bohemia?

Many other examples could be mentioned, most recently the "shock and awe" tactics of America in Iraq and Russia's crushing of Chechnya. No one has ever practiced "proportionality" in war. Certainly not the Arabs, who fight by trying to kill as many civilians as they can, then defend that by calling it "resistance." Some very slick pro-Arab web sites are now presenting an obscene defense of Hezbollah's rocket attacks against Israeli civilians: what else was Nasrallah to do when Israel actually started taking steps towards eliminating the terrorist threat on its northern border that has been a plague for years?

Only Israel has ever been accused of responding "disproportionately." Cohen names the reason:

These calls for proportionality rankle. They fall on my ears not as genteel expressions of fairness, some ditsy Marquess of Queensberry idea of war, but as ugly sentiments pregnant with antipathy toward the only democratic state in the Middle East. After the Holocaust, after 1,000 years of mayhem and murder, the only proportionality that counts is zero for zero. If Israel's enemies want that, they can have it in a moment.

Without the provocation of ever more violent terrorist attacks, which have only increased since Israel's withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza, there would be no need for any military response from Israel, proportionate or otherwise. That much ought to be obvious.

Another column that appeared today, by John Podhoretz in the New York Post, examines the question of "proportionate" response from a different angle. What if liberal democracies have evolved to the point where they cannot fight against a ruthless enemy precisely because of repugnance toward "disproportionate" responses?

Could World War II have been won by Britain and the United States if the two countries did not have it in them to firebomb Dresden and nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Such battle tactics fill us with horror today, and it's hard to imagine ourselves repeating them. This is the stark dilemma confronting Israel today:

Could Israel - even hardy, strong, universally conscripted Israel - possibly stomach the bloodshed that would accompany the total destruction of Hezbollah?

If Lebanon's 300-plus civilian casualties are already rocking the world, what if it would take 10,000 civilian casualties to finish off Hezbollah? Could Israel inflict that kind of damage on Lebanon - not because of world opinion, but because of its own modern sensibilities and its understanding of the value of every human life?...

What if Israel's caution about casualties among its own soldiers and Lebanese civilians has demonstrated to Hezbollah and Hamas that as long as they can duck and cover when the missiles fly and the bombs fall, they can survive and possibly even thrive?

The fallacy of "proportionate response" lies in the secret weapon of Hezbollah: the Lebanese civilian. Hezbollah knows this and has taken calculated advantage of it. This war is hard for Israel to win precisely because Hezbollah has made such effective use of Arab civilians as pawns of war.

I am not a military tactician. I do not have the expertise to judge what would constitute a sound and appropriate military strategy. All I know is that even with all the pounding Hezbollah strongholds have taken, rockets continue to fall on Israeli cities. And thousands of rockets falling on civilian communities can hardly be called a "proportionate" response to anything.


Cohen, Richard. ". . . No, It's Survival." Washington Post, July 25, 2006.

Podhoretz, John. "Too Nice to Win? Israel's Dilemma." New York Post, July 25, 2006.

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