Michael Walzer on Fighting the Middle East War(s)

Michael Walzer is known principally among philosophers and other moral theorists for his work on just war theory. His 1977 book, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (New York, Basic Books; second edition 1992; third edition 2000) was widely heralded as "one of the remarkably few books of lasting significance to have emerged out of the Vietnam War and its aftermath" (according to Thomas Pangle of Yale University). The book, while condemning the Vietnam War, argues in favor of the possibility of an ethically waged, just war. He explicitly draws upon the work of such writers as Maimonides, Aquinas, Vitoria, Suarez, and Hugo Grotius while working hard to keep political theory in the realm of the particular rather than the merely abstract. It is fair to say that his own politics are on the left: he is the co-editor of Dissent and a contributing editor of The New Republic.

In light of his politics, two recent articles of his are of note. One of them, "Regime Change and Just War", appeared in the Summer 2006 number of Dissent (available online here). The other, "War Fair", appeared in the 31 July issue of The New Republic (available here only by subscription). The Dissent piece is taken from the newest (2006) edition of Just and Unjust Wars and argues that the U. S. intervention in Iraq is a mistaken policy and that the use of what he calls "force-short-of-war" or "indirect approaches to regime change" would have been preferable to full-fledged war.

In light of this, the position he stakes out in "War Fair" is rather interesting. The topic in that piece is not the U. S. intervention in Iraq, but the recent conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. Walzer notes that the situation in that conflict is of a different nature than most situations involving just war analysis:
Israel is now at war with an enemy whose hostility is extreme, explicit, unrestrained, and driven by an ideology of religious hatred. But this is an enemy that does not field an army; that has no institutional structure and no visible chain of command; that does not recognize the legal and moral principle of noncombatant immunity; and that does not, indeed, acknowledge any rules of engagement. How do you--how does anyone--fight an enemy like that?
Well, presumably the quickest answer to that question is: "Within the bounds of the moral law", which means that "there cannot be any direct attacks on civilian targets (even if the enemy doesn't believe in the existence of civilians)".

This includes attacks on the economic infrastructure, and Walzer notes that the case for avoiding such attacks is "prudential as well as moral":
Reducing the quality of life in Gaza, where it is already low, is intended to put pressure on whoever is politically responsible for the inhabitants of Gaza--and then these responsible people, it is hoped, will take action against the shadowy forces attacking Israel. The same logic has been applied in Lebanon, where the forces are not so shadowy. But no one is responsible in either of these cases, or, better, those people who might take responsibility long ago chose not to. The leaders of the soveriegn state of Lebanon insist that they have no control over the southern part of their country--and, more amazingly, no obligation to take control. Still, Palestinian civilians are not likely to hold anyone responsible for their fate except the Israelis, and, while the Lebanese will be more discriminating, Israel will still bear the larger burden of blame. Hamas and Hezbollah feed on the suffering their own activity brings about, and an Israeli response that increases the suffering only intensifies the feeding.
This leaves Israel in a precarious position. Just war theory, Walzer points out, rules out many ways of fighting but does not rule out fighting itself. The proportionality of Israel's reaction, he says,
must be measured not only against what Hamas and Hezbollah have already done, but also against what they are (and what they say they are) trying to do.
Both groups have made it quite clear that "what they are trying to do" is destroy the state of Israel. That may be an unrealistic goal--I doubt very much that either of them, alone or together, could ever hope to accomplish such a thing without the complicity of rogue states such as Iran--but given the fact that they have access to powerful weaponry and the financial support to put together a remarkable public relations campaign, what they say they are trying to do must be taken fairly seriously.

For Walzer, writing, it must be pointed out, in mid-July, there is a pragmatic side to Israel's response.
The most important Israeli goal in both the north and the south is to prevent rocket attacks on its civilian population, and, here, its response clearly meets the requirements of necessity. The first purpose of any state is to defend the lives of its citizens; no state can tolerate random rocket attacks on its cities and towns. Some 700 rockets have been fired from northern Gaza since the Israeli withdrawal a year ago--imagine the U.S. response if a similar number were fired at Buffalo and Detroit from some Canadian no-man's-land. It doesn't matter that, so far, the Gazan rockets have done minimal damage; the intention every time one is fired is to hit a home or a school, and, sooner or later, that intention will be realized.
As Walzer points out, Israel has waited a long time for the Palestinian Authority and the government of Lebanon to do the right thing with regards to these rocket attacks, and nothing has happened--the attacks continue. Even a Security Council resolution calling for the disarming of Hezbollah has been ignored, and one wonders what Israel is supposed to do about this situation.
The crucial argument is about the Palestinian use of civilians as shields. Academic philosophers have written at great length about "innocent shields," since these radically exploited (but sometimes, perhaps, compliant) men and women pose a dilemma that tests the philosophers' dialectical skills. Israeli soldiers are not required to have dialectical skills, but, on the one hand, they are expected to do wverything they can to prevent civilian deaths, and, on the other hand, they are expected to fight against an enemy that hides behind civilians. So (to quote a famous line from Trotsky), they may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in them.
The difference in the intentions of the Israelis and their enemies is significant: no Israeli soldier, one presumes, deliberately targets civilians without justification or, at the very least, if it were discovered that he did, that person would be removed from service and punished. Among the fighters of Hamas and Hezbollah, by contrast, such targeting is deliberate and indiscriminate. It does not matter so much that the partisans of Hezbollah are lousy shots--if they had better weapons and better training, they would be killing more Israeli civilians than anyone could imagine, since that is their stated goal. The israelis, who do not intend to kill civilians, do so principally by accidents caused by the willful negligence and malicious behavior of their enemies.
[The use of civilian shields] works, because it is both morally right and politically intelligent for the Israelis to minimize--and to be seen trying to minimize--civilian casualties. Still, minimizing does not mean avoiding entirely: civilians will suffer so long as no one on the Palestinian side (or the Lebanese side) takes action to stop rocket attacks. From that side, though not from the Israeli side, what needs to be done could probably be done without harm to civilians.


Eric V. Kirk said…
I think Walzer may be our most profound thinker on the politics of war. I try to spread his Four Wars of Palestine and his Can there be a Decent Left? around to all of my fellow leftists. We'd be so much more effective if we heeded some of his concerns.

Nice blog by the way.

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