Six Defense Department officials, all speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to describe how Islamic State targets are selected and attacked, described a sliding scale of probable civilian casualties based on the value of the target and the location. For example, a strike with the potential to wound or kill several civilians would be permitted if it prevented ISIL fighters from causing greater harm.Before the change, there were some limited cases in which civilian casualties were allowed, the officials said. Now, however, there are several targeting areas in which the probability of 10 civilian casualties are permitted. Those areas shift depending on the time, location of the targets and the value of destroying them, the officials said.The riskiest missions require White House approval, said one official, who is closely involved with current targeting plans.
This is entirely appropriate and embodies the concept of “proportional force,” a mainstay of international law too often conveniently ignored or misinterpreted when it comes to Israel. And that brings us back to the Gaza war.
The Israelis faced a much more imminent threat against an enemy deliberately using civilian shields. A U.S. review after the war confirmed the extraordinary lengths to which Israel went to avoid civilian causalities. That, however, was not how the Obama administration and, in particular Ben Rhodes, certainly the least expert and most partisan person to hold a senior foreign policy position in recent memory, saw things. (Recall that before the bodies from Libya were shipped home, Rhodes was the one drafting talking points to spin the incident so as to avoid the impression that the administration’s anti-terrorism policy was unraveling.) Rhodes, with no factual basis, insisted that Israel “can always do more” to avoid civilian deaths. (He offered no suggestions.) The administration announced itself “appalled” by Israel’s self-defense, which regrettably killed innocents (precisely as Hamas intended, by hiding weapons and terrorists in civilian areas).
Don’t expect the administration to “self-reflect” on its criticisms of Israel now that it is in the same boat — balancing innocent life against the threat from aggressors. As for Israel, you will not hear any public “I told you so’s.” The Israeli government, unlike the current administration, understands that the United States and Israel share many things, among which is the dedication to the rule of law, the preservation of innocent life and a transparent democracy that is willing to examine its own conduct, debate and correct course when appropriate. Until the Obama administration came along, U.S. presidents generally understood this as well, defending Israel from efforts to delegitimize it and constrain its right to self-defense under the phony, distorted banner of “international law.”
The next president should avoid mimicking the administration’s unwarranted criticism, as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has done. We’ve repeatedly credited Hillary Clinton for rebutting Sanders’s libel, and thereby by implication, the administration’s Gaza war rhetoric.
But neither should Obama’s successor follow the monstrous suggestion from Donald Trump that we should target noncombatant women and children and should engage not merely in enhanced interrogation but out-and-out torture. America is not “great” because it can outdo its enemies in mendacity; it is great — as Israel and other Western democracies are — because it is a force for good in the world and abides by Judeo-Christian values that do not revere power above all else.
Sanders would make us weak by undermining our — and Israel’s — right to self-defense and allowing evil actors to flourish, thereby imperiling thousands of innocents. Trump would make us weak by undermining our values and our image as a defender of free peoples, thereby impeding our fight against evil actors. Surely the United States can do better than that.
And by the way, don’t hold your breath waiting for an apology from the morally myopic, thin-skinned administration. This president’s animus toward Israel would not permit that.