Doing Something versus Doing Something Helpful in the Aftermath of a Tragedy

The Hamas-led attacks on Israel happened on October 7, which is now more than ten days ago.  As Professor Dorf wrote here on October 10th, "readers [of Dorf on Law] might reasonably expect that I and/or one or more of my co-bloggers would be quick to express views about the latest war. And we may yet."  He closed his column by adding: "In the meantime, I caution readers not to confuse reticence on the subject with indifference. It more nearly reflects the opposite reaction."  He found his voice yesterday, and I will now attempt to express some coherent thoughts as well, although I know that I cannot match his eloquence.

It is not easy to write anything about this subject.  I have no words to describe my initial reaction to the news, as I (along with nearly everyone else) struggled to process the sheer horror and scope of what had happened.  I do, however, have the precise words to describe what I thought next: "Oh no, this is going to be used by some people to make things much worse."  And it did not take long for that prediction to be proved tragically right, as I will describe in a moment.

I should stipulate here, however, that the other reason I waited this long to write about this cataclysmic change in the world is that I am aware of my limitations in terms of relevant expertise as well as my highly incomplete knowledge of the past and present realities of that region.  Accordingly, I have read every article and watched every TV interview that I could tolerate without succumbing to utter despair, hoping not only to be wrong in my prediction but to find people saying wise and helpful things that could point a way to near-term and long-term futures that are the least bad among what are now only bad possibilities.

Although many people have sensibly compared the current political and military/diplomatic atmosphere to the post-9/11 conversation in the United States, I am thinking about the US's 2021 experience withdrawing forces after a 20-year military operation in Afghanistan (which began in response to 9/11, of course).  In August of 2021, I wrote a column conceding my relative lack of expertise and knowledge, but because so many supposed experts' claims simply did not add up, I ventured to offer some reactions.

I wrote: "I am going to do my best to stay in my lane while calling out others who clearly know even less than I do."  I might also have added: "... or worse, who affirmatively want to mislead people."  And unsurprisingly, Afghanistan has now become one of those words that people like Donald Trump say -- like "inflation" or "debt" -- that is supposed to conjure up a visceral sense that "Biden is to blame."  In the case of Afghanistan, that claim is especially rich, given that it was Trump who left office after having put a time-clock on the US military’s departure and in so doing guaranteed that the withdrawal would be catastrophic.

In any event, I will similarly limit myself here to asking questions -- not in the dishonest "I'm just asking" style of demagogues, but rather saying something like this: "I concede that I might be missing something, but I do have the ability to identify a fallacious or incomplete argument when I see it.  When such obviously unconvincing arguments are on display, I have no choice but to question the conclusions."

To lay my cards on the table, I am following not just the form but what I take to be the substance of Professor Dorf's concession at the end of his column yesterday:

I have no military expertise. Maybe I'm wrong in my assessment. Maybe Israel's emergency coalition government and generals have some brilliant secret plan that will lead to long-term security and even peace. From all appearances, however, it looks much more like they are acting under an imperative to do something to make plain that people who murder Israeli civilians must pay a steep price. I can and do understand the felt need to do something forceful. I just wish someone in authority in Israel could think of something to do that is not only forceful but also helpful.

Exactly.  I also am not a military expert.  I can, however, see nonsense and dissembling for what it is.  And what I am seeing, unfortunately, is exactly what I thought back on October 7: "this is going to be used by some people to make things much worse."  And as Professor Dorf notes, others might be in the process of allowing bad things to happen because they feel the need to make someone pay.

Some assertions are rather easily knocked down.  In an interview yesterday, for example, a former Israeli diplomat said that the reason Gaza has no water is because Hamas has over the years dug up the pipes of their water system and used them to make missiles.  I am not saying that that has never happened -- again, that requires knowing facts that I have no way of verifying or contradicting -- but only that, even if true, that argument is plainly nonsense in light of the fact that the Israeli government immediately turned off the water (and gas and other supplies) to Gaza after the 7th, and everyone concedes that this has led to a dire public health disaster, with people suffering from dehydration and worse.  People are accordingly calling on the Israeli government to turn the water back on.  If Gazans lacked water because Hamas had dug up all of the pipes, the Netanyahu government (pre-unity coalition) could not have turned the water off, nor could they (now or later) turn it back on.

More broadly, consider an interview two days ago with US Rep. Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington (the state) and ranking minority member of the House Armed Services Committee.  Other than his notable name (which, because I am an economist, grabbed my attention), I had otherwise heard nothing from this member of Congress; but he quickly impressed me as thoughtful and genuinely dedicated to trying to help.

Even so, Smith was unable to answer a very basic question, which an interviewer put this way:

So why not call specifically for de-escalation or a ceasefire until the humanitarian corridor is secured, Americans are allowed to leave, and we can get a handle on the humanitarian crisis, so that these people don't pay the price?  No one is saying to not do what Israel is doing, but why not simply now, as a member of Congress and others, call for a de-escalation and call for a ceasefire until we can insure the safety of everyone on the ground who is not a combatant?

Because things are moving so quickly, it is important to note that this interview took place nine days after the attacks, and the Israeli government had been telling half of the population of Gaza to move into the other half -- again, to a place where they would be without the benefit of basic public goods like running water.  The interviewer was asking why it was essential that Israel's military launch a full-scale ground attack right away.  Smith's answer was, to be charitable, incoherent:

Sure.  Well the answer to that question is Israel is fighting a war.  It's a very difficult war.  They are under threat from Hamas.  They're under threat from Hezbollah.  If we call for them to de-escalate, you know, is anyone going to call for Hamas and Hezbollah to de-escalate?  How does Israel protect their interests and protect [Gazan] civilians at the same time?  Sadly, given what Hamas did, Israel cannot simply stand down at this point.  And then you can say, "Well, OK, you can fight, but be careful about it," and I agree with that.  But that's really hard to do.  So we should call for humanitarian corridors, for humanitarian assistance.  It's hard at this point to tell Israel how to defend itself after what happened last week.

Again, all I can do is ask some questions about the logic of this response.  Smith said nothing more than that we can hope that the Israeli response does as little damage as possible, but only the Israeli leadership can decide how to defend itself.  But why?  Why is it inappropriate for Israel's strongest ally to say, "Hey, give it a couple of days"?  Even setting aside the rhetorical point that of course everyone has called on Hamas and Hezbollah to de-escalate, the interviewer's question was: Why the rush?

And Smith's answer -- "It's up to the Israelis" -- was not only a dodge but put the US in the position of supporting without question the actions of a government that everyone now admits failed to see the attacks coming.  Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post had a particularly good piece yesterday describing that government's failures.  As I wrote above and have already repeated once, my first coherent thought on October 7 was that "this is going to be used by some people to make things much worse."  And sure enough, the hawks in the Netanyahu government went straight for escalation, basically saying that they had to act now now now.  Because.

Moreover, given that the attacks on October 7 happened when the Israeli military and intelligence services had become preoccupied with other things and left the area near Gaza open (which is one reason why it took so tragically long for help to arrive), it is hardly obvious why any humanitarian delay would inevitably mean that Hamas and Hezbollah would be able to successfully follow up on their attacks.  It is no longer true that the Israeli authorities have taken their eye off the ball.

Again, maybe there is an answer to that question.  Even so, it is worrisome that Smith, who is hardly a back-bencher on this issue, had no answer.  And I might have missed it, but I have not heard anyone else (in the Biden Administration, the Israeli government, the national security community, or any other source) offer a coherent answer.

Indeed, when Smith's interviewer said, "No one is saying to not do what Israel is doing," I thought, "Right, and why not?"  Why does it make sense to take one of the most densely populated plots of land in the world and make the southern half of it twice as densely populated?  What exactly is the strategic advantage from displacing more than a million people and leveling their city?  The tunnels?  There are tunnels under all of Gaza, not only under the upper half.  And Hamas can move to the bottom half, too.  Again, maybe that is incorrect as a factual matter (perhaps their munitions are too heavy to carry, or something along those lines), which means that a more informed observer could answer this question.  But also again, no one has done so thus far, to my knowledge.

Which does finally bring us to the 9/11 comparison.  The current debate is eerily similar to the debate in late 2001 and early 2002, when some people said that we could no longer deal with terrorists the way we had always dealt with terrorists -- special operations, extraditions and prosecutions, and so on -- but they could not explain why that heinous attack necessitated a war footing with a complete military invasion of Afghanistan (even setting aside the subsequent attack on Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11).

And this brings me to Thomas Friedman, the columnist for The New York Times.  In 2013, I wrote a Dorf on Law column in which I recounted Friedman's chilling excuse for the US invasion of Iraq.  In a 2003 interview, Friedman actually said this:

We needed to go over there, basically, and take out a very big stick...  And what they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying, "Which part of this sentence don't you understand?  You don't think we care about our open society?  ... Well suck on this!"  OK?

I am happy to report that Friedman has not gone in that direction in the current crisis.  Even so, his description in a column three days ago of what he thinks the Israeli government is thinking came dangerously close to being prescriptive, if not an apologia:

In 2006, Israel essentially responded to Hezbollah: "You think you can just do crazy stuff like kidnap our people and we will treat this as a little border dispute. We may look Western, but the modern Jewish state has survived as ‘a villa in the jungle'" — which is how the former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak described it — "because if push comes to shove, we are willing to play by the local rules. Have no illusions about that. You will not outcrazy us out of this neighborhood."

Let us give Friedman the benefit of the doubt, which in this case would mean that he was reporting and not endorsing what he took to be a prior Israeli government's strategy.  Even so, what kind of an argument is that if not, "A bad thing happened, and now we have to do something.  Not only something, but something crazier than what just happened to us"?  Because ... deterrence, I guess.

The problem is that that is not only immoral in the ways that Professor Dorf explained in yesterday's column, but it is reasonable to ask whether it will make matters worse.  Again, my "this is going to be used by some people to make things much worse" reaction comes back into the conversation.  To this point, I have noted that there are elements in the Netanyahu government who would welcome an excuse to go to war (even as they mourn the losses that justify that decision).  The other people who "want to make things much worse," of course, are the actual perpetrators of the October 7 attack.  They want Israel's government to overreact.  That is their strategy.

I cannot say that anything is making me feel in a way that I could describe as "happy," so I will not write a sentence that begins with, "I am happy to report that ... ."  Instead, I will only report with some relief that there is preliminary evidence that the fever is passing.  The Biden Administration seems slowly to be saying to the Israeli government, to use Friedman's formulation quoted above: "You don't just look Western.  You are Western, or at least you will be if you want us to stand by you."

To repeat, showing restraint is not "merely" morally defensible.  It is almost certainly a wiser course of action that will lead to the least-bad of some truly terrible possible outcomes.  The immediate rush to "hit back" is perhaps understandable.  But people in their most trying moments need to be held back by their friends and loved ones, not enabled by them.

There are plenty of informed, intelligent people who know a lot about military capabilities, counter-terrorism strategies, maintaining public support rather than squandering it, and every other issue that is very much in play in the current situation.  I am not one of them.  If anything that I have written here is based on incorrect or missing facts, then I will update my tentative conclusions accordingly.  I am worried, however, by how little anyone has even tried to justify what is happening; and I am even more worried by how little sense any of the few proffered justifications have made.

This is a volatile situation, and one can only hope that the recent news of a strategic reconsideration are accurate -- and that nothing happens to make matters even worse.