The Myth of Proportionality

Israel is being pilloried by the Lebanese government and many Europeans for what they label a “disproportionate” response to the act of war by Hizballah in attacking its soldiers, kidnaping two of them, and now unleashing an indiscriminate barrage of hundreds of rockets at Israel’s civilian population.

While the French, Russians and others criticize Israel for the response, they give no indication of what would be acceptable to them. Meanwhile, it is hard to imagine that France would show the slightest restraint if its cities were under attack. Just ask the people of the Ivory Coast, thousands of miles away, about French restraint there. And what about the Russian idea of proportionality? We’ve seen it firsthand in their treatment of terrorists in Moscow and the prosecution of their war in Chechnya.

Still, let’s consider what a proportional response might look like. Since Hizballah’s stated objective is the destruction of Israel, isn’t the appropriate response the destruction of Hizballah? Wouldn’t random missile strikes on Lebanese cities be proportionate to Hizballah’s rocket attacks on northern Israel? Can you imagine any of Israel’s critics accepting those responses?

A more salient question is who decided that one side must respond proportionately in a war? The United States certainly doesn’t believe this. Imagine if terrorists based in Cuba had 10,000 rockets pointed at Miami, would we sit by and wait for them to be fired at Florida? And once they were launched, would any American call for a proportionate response? We went through a version of this with the Cuban missile crisis when President Kennedy made clear the presence of missiles pointing at the United States was intolerable and he was prepared for a nuclear war if they were not removed.

Americans believe in Colin Powell’s doctrine, which holds that “America should enter fights with every bit of force available or not at all.” Many critics of the Iraq war contend that Bush did not use sufficient force and that is why the situation today is unstable. Even if that is true, the United States did not hesitate to use disproportionate force in its bombing campaign against Saddam’s forces and Iraq’s infrastructure. Consider these other examples of America’s use of “proportionality”:

General Powell insisted on deploying overwhelming force before going to war against Iraq in the first Gulf War. The Allied force of more than half a million troops demolished Saddam Hussein’s army at a cost of fewer than 200 American lives while approximately 35,000 Iraqis were killed, including many civilians.

Powell also oversaw the invasion of Panama, which required the deployment of 25,000 troops and the use of F-117 Stealth bombers for the first time. Thousands of Panamanian civilians were injured and displaced and at least 100 killed. He said later, “Use all the force necessary, and do not apologize for going in big if that is what it takes. Decisive force ends wars quickly and in the long-run saves lives.”

In reaction to an attempt to assassinate President Bush in 1993, the U.S. launched 23 cruise missiles at Iraq’s intelligence headquarters and hit a civilian neighborhood in the process. Powell later said this was an “appropriate, proportional” response.

The United States uses overwhelming force against its enemies, even though the threats are distant and pose no danger to the existence of the nation or the immediate security of its citizens. The accomplishment of U.S. military objectives is also routinely accompanied by errors and collateral damage that results in civilian casualties.

The threat Israel faces is immediate in time and physical proximity, and poses a direct danger to Israeli citizens. More than a thousand rockets have now fallen on Israel’s cities, not its military installations, its civilian centers. Approximately one million Israelis have fled south or are living in bomb shelters. Still, Israel has not used its full might as the Powell Doctrine dictates. The use of force has been judicious and precise.

The Israeli military’s activities are governed by an overriding policy of restraint and a determination to prevent harm to innocent civilians. Israel knows that any mistakes will immediately be publicized around the world and its own population will be the harshest critics. In the end, however, Israel must defeat its enemies and put an end to the threat posed by rockets on both its northern and southern frontiers and it cannot listen to the hypocritical criticism of the proponents of the myth of proportionality.