I trust the Israelis will not lecture the administration that “there is always more to do” to avoid civilian casualties, nor will the Israeli government proclaim itself “appalled” and civilian deaths “totally unacceptable and totally indefensible” when it comes to fighting the Islamic State. The United States spoke in such terms to Israel during the Gaza War, but now has encountered the realities of war. And it turns out there is not always more to do.
The White House has acknowledged for the first time that strict standards President Obama imposed last year to prevent civilian deaths from U.S. drone strikes will not apply to U.S. military operations in Syria and Iraq. A White House statement to Yahoo News confirming the looser policy came in response to questions about reports that as many as a dozen civilians, including women and young children, were killed when a Tomahawk missile struck the village of Kafr Daryan in Syria’s Idlib province on the morning of Sept. 23.
The rules previously announced that handcuffed the administration are declared inapplicable here. (“[A] much-publicized White House policy that President Obama announced last year barring U.S. drone strikes unless there is a ‘near certainty’ there will be no civilian casualties — ‘the highest standard we can meet,’ he said at the time — does not cover the current U.S. airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. The ‘near certainty’ standard was intended to apply ‘only when we take direct action ‘outside areas of active hostilities,’ as we noted at the time,’ [the NSC spokeswoman] said in an email. ‘That description — outside areas of active hostilities — simply does not fit what we are seeing on the ground in Iraq and Syria right now.'”)
Don’t get me wrong. The current U.S. practice is entirely legitimate. It is hard to argue with the assertion that “like all U.S. military operations, [airstrikes on the Islamic State] are being conducted consistently with the laws of armed conflict, proportionality and distinction.” However, this does underscore how misguided and unfair U.S. condemnation of Israel was. Perhaps Ben Rhodes, the politically minded national security official who took it upon himself to lecture Israel, should finally apologize.
There is something else to be said here about the choice of airstrikes as the main U.S. tactic. The Obama administration has been roundly criticized for pursuing an air campaign that cannot possibly destroy the Islamic State. If that is a strategy with limited efficacy, what is the moral argument for continuing to employ it when civilian casualties result? It is one thing when a strategy is well-designed to achieve a specific military objective (e.g. destroying Gaza terrorists’ tunnels and rockets), but quite another when it is not. Imagine if Israel had conducted bombing raid after bombing raid resulting in civilian casualties rather than send in ground troops at great risk to them in order to strike with precision. I’m sure the Obama administration would have been appalled.