Rationalizing the ratio

Often, as we’ve noted before, columnists eschew careful argument altogether preferring textbook rhetoric to assert and bolster a basic claim. Krauthammer’s column today fits this bill. “Disproportionate in What Moral Universe? rejects the claims that the Israeli response to the recent Hezbollah initiated conflict is “disproportionate.”

In just war theory it is a proportionality between the use of force and the end that is being achieved by the use of force (and not “tit for tat”). It’s not clear that Krauthammer has this notion in mind. He seems to equivocate on the notion of proportionality throughout his column. Generally he suggests that the Israeli response is not out of proportion to the Hezbollah attacks:

In perhaps the most blatant terror campaign from the air since the London Blitz, Hezbollah is raining rockets on Israeli cities and villages. These rockets are packed with ball bearings that can penetrate automobiles and shred human flesh. They are meant to kill and maim. And they do.

Israel’s response to Hezbollah has been to use the most precise weaponry and targeting it can. It has no interest, no desire to kill Lebanese civilians. Does anyone imagine that it could not have leveled south Lebanon, to say nothing of Beirut

But, the notion of proportionality should be sought between the end and the means:

On Wednesday CNN cameras showed destruction in Tyre. What does Israel have against Tyre and its inhabitants? Nothing. But the long-range Hezbollah rockets that have been raining terror on Haifa are based in Tyre. What is Israel to do? Leave untouched the launch sites that are deliberately placed in built-up areas?

The end that the Israeli government offers is the safety of its citizens achieved by disarming/weakening Hezbollah and creating a buffer zone in southern Lebanon. Proportionality thus requires that the force used is in proportion to the effect desired. Another way of expressing this would be to say that the military means should be enough to effect this goal without causing additional destruction or damage. If they destroy more than is needed to effect the goal, then the case that their war is just will be undermined.

The claims of “disproportionate” response arise because it seems very likely that Israel is targeting sites outside of southern lebanon and with not obvious connections to Hezbollah (relief trucks, Lebanese military bases, UN observer posts, communication resources, infrastructure, etc.) In addition they are targeting areas where there is “support” for Hezbollah resulting in civilian casualties. The Israeli government would claim that Hezbollah is using civilian populations as “human shields.” (Salon has an interesting piece claiming that Hezbollah militants mistrust civilian populations here).

But while granting that the Israeli government has the right to respond to the attacks and eliminate the threat of future attacks by Hezbollah, critics are arguing that many of the targets are spurious for these goals. We can’t evaluate the truth of that claim here. But the burden of proof lies with the perpetrator of the acts and such proof is not provided by Krauthammer’s vague and unsupported claims about legimate targets and military necessities.

Nevertheless, whether this is true or not, Krauthammer does not address the real question of whether targeting Lebanese army bases and relief trucks is justified by the proportionality requirement. Instead he equivocates between two senses of proportionality, with an excessive rhetoric that would justify virtually any act of violence committed in the Israeli attack.

2 thoughts on “Rationalizing the ratio”

  1. There’s a lot of interesting stuff being written on the proportionality principle that makes my post seem a little crude. For a start check out:


    There is also an NYT article available to Times Select Viewers: http://select.nytimes.com/search/restricted/article?res=F50D10F83D5B0C7A8DDDAE0894DE404482

    The debate here seems to be between (a) the place of proportionality principle in judging the justice of war and (b) the proper interpretation of the proportionality principle.

    I still think that Krauthammer is equivocating between a sense of proportion between “evils” and proportion between the evil means and the good end. The outrage at the soldiers killed and captured by Hezbollah, and at the subsequent missile attacks after the Israeli government escalated the conflict, is meant to be weighed against the attacks on civilians (hence the excessive rhetoric comparing Hezbollah missiles to the bombing of London). Simultaneously he is trying to justify the “collateral damage” by claiming that it is a necessary means to the end of returning the 2 soldiers and preventing further border conflicts.

  2. first off, i agree with on krauthammer’s take. exemplary equivocation, and there seems to be a lot of that going around in a lot of wiriting, especially Stanley Fish’s. at any rate, i find the issue of proportionality particularly perplexing, even more so having read the recommended readings. i gues my ultimate pron=blem is that in either question you pose above, which i readily assent to be the heart(s) of the issue, to what maxim or rule do they appeal in their answering? where is the objective base for arguing for the principle, however interpreted, of proportionality? Is there such an objective base? If the answer id the just war theory, then this answer only begs the question. moreover, if there is no such objective base, then how can any real questioning of the israeli or the hezbollah position

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