US Leadership And The Harsh Realities Of The Wars In Ukraine And Gaza

Jul 6th, 2024 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

We live in troubling times.  The Western world is under severe pressure, facing challenges from Russia, Iran and China.   And the leader of the Western world is faltering in its leadership.  The confusion, disorder and unsettledness currently dominating American politics are causing other western allies  to doubt the reliability of the US in its obligations as an ally.  The two current candidates for president do not yield any degree of confidence or certainty about this reliability:  One candidate is an America-first isolationist and the other lacks the decisive courage to lead the Western world.  Our enemies know this and relish the continued decline, as they perceive it, of the West.  For them the future belongs to the axis of evil centered in Russia, Iran and China, not the West.

This actuality has caused me to reflect on the presidency of Ronald Reagan (1981-1989).  As columnist Peggy Noonan recently wrote, “He revitalized the US economy after decades of drift and demoralization, and he defeated the Soviet Union, the Berlin Wall falling months after he left the presidency.  He did a third thing . . .  He changed the mood of the country.  We’d been depressed since JFK’s assassination and Vietnam, since Nixon and Watergate.  Reagan said no, we aren’t a spent force, we aren’t incapable, and we’ve got all this energy and brains.”  He restored optimism to the American psyche and changed the tenor and temperament of the nation.

Neither candidate in 2024 has the capacity to do that.   One is vindictive, declaring, “I am your vengeance.”  If elected he will not unify the nation; instead, he will further divide it, feeding it with a spirit of vindictiveness and revenge.  The other lacks the decisive spirit to act boldly in the face of the multiple crises facing America.

Whoever is elected in November must face the harsh realities of Ukraine and Gaza.  Columnist Bret Stephens offers an important assessment:  “In the past 50 years, the United States has gotten good at losing wars.  We withdrew in humiliation from Saigon, Vietnam, in 1975; Beirut in 1984; Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993; and Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2021. We withdrew, after the tenuous victory of the surge, from Baghdad in 2011, only to return three years later after the Islamic State group swept through northern Iraq and we had to stop it (which, with the help of Iraqis and Kurds, we did). We won limited victories against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, only to fumble the endgames.”

None of these wars was especially threatening to our national security, but some of our wars were existential in that the very existence of our way of life, our core values, and our destiny were at stake.  “We know how America fought such wars. During the siege of Vicksburg in 1863, hunger ‘yielded to starvation as dogs, cats, and even rats vanished from the city,’ Ron Chernow noted in his biography of Ulysses Grant. The Union did not send food convoys to relieve the suffering of innocent Southerners.  In World War II, Allied bombers killed an estimated 10,000 civilians in the Netherlands, 60,000 in France, 60,000 in Italy and hundreds of thousands of Germans. All this was part of a declared Anglo-American policy to undermine ‘the morale of the German people to the point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.’ We pursued an identical policy against Japan, where bombardment killed, according to some estimates, nearly 1 million civilians . . . Nations, especially democracies, often have second thoughts about the means they use to win existential wars. But they also tend to canonize leaders who, faced with the awful choice of evils that every war presents, nonetheless chose morally compromised victories over morally pure defeats.”

As Stephens argues, “Today, Israel and Ukraine are engaged in the same kind of wars. We know that not because they say so but because their enemies do. Vladimir Putin believes that the Ukrainian state is a fiction. Hamas, Hezbollah and their patrons in Iran openly call for Israel to be wiped off the map. In response, both countries want to fight aggressively, with the view that they can achieve security only by destroying their enemies’ capability and will to wage war.  This often ends in tragedy . . . This has always been the story of warfare. Terms like ‘precision weapons’ can foster the notion that it’s possible for modern militaries to hit only intended targets. But that’s a fantasy, especially against enemies like Hamas, whose method is to fight and hide among the innocent so that it may be rescued from destruction by the world’s concern for the innocent.  It’s equally a fantasy to imagine that you can supply an ally like Ukraine with just enough weaponry of just the right kind to repel Russia’s attack but not so much as to provoke Russia into escalation. Wars are not porridge; there’s almost never a Goldilocks approach to getting it just right. Either you’re on the way to victory or on the way to defeat.”

What are the dangers of this policy? Stephens:

  • “Right now, the Biden administration is trying to restrain Israel and aid Ukraine while operating under both illusions. It is asking them to fight their wars in roughly the same way that the United States has fought its own wars in recent decades—with limited means, a limited stomach for what it takes to win and an eye on the possibility of a negotiated settlement. How is it possible, for instance, that even now Ukraine does not have F-16s to defend its own skies?”
  • “A ‘peace deal’ with Moscow that leaves it in possession of vast areas of Ukrainian territory is an invitation for a third invasion once Russia recapitalizes its forces. A cease-fire with Hamas that leaves the group in control of the Gaza Strip means it will inevitably start another war, just as it has five times before. It also vindicates the strategy of using civilian populations as human shields—something Hezbollah will be sure to copy in its next full-scale war with Israel.”

David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey offer an additional perspective about Israel and Gaza:  “As it defends itself against Hamas in Gaza, Israel has come under sustained political, media and legal attack for supposedly violating international law—and not only from hostile countries and bodies like the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice. On May 10 the U.S. State Department sent a report to Congress that concluded U.S.-provided arms have been used by Israel ‘in instances inconsistent with its IHL’—international humanitarian law—‘obligations or with established best practices for mitigating civilian harm.’  These criticisms are based on a distorted view of the law of war and its crucial legal principles—distinction, proportionality, and the obligations owed to enemy civilians. They threaten Israel’s strategic interests and the ability of all law-abiding nations to defend themselves.”

Rivkin and Casey provide further understandings about the “laws of war” that are most helpful in evaluating the war in Gaza:

  • “The law of armed conflict is a practical set of rules directed at ameliorating the harms of war—originally with respect to those engaged in combat, and over the years expanding to noncombatants associated with the military and ultimately to civilians. Protecting civilians and civilian property is an important goal of the laws of war, but not their paramount goal.”
  • “The law of war has many sources, but the Biden administration should have followed the standard U.S. position, as laid out in the Law of War Manual. One of its most important teachings is that ‘although military necessity cannot justify actions that have been prohibited by the law of war, some law of war rules expressly incorporate military necessity.’ That’s especially true of rules meant to protect civilian populations affected by armed conflict, largely embodied in the principles of ‘distinction’ and ‘proportionality.’
  • “The principle of distinction provides that civilians can’t be deliberately targeted for attack, as Hamas did on Oct. 7 and routinely does. In choosing how and what to attack, military commanders must make good-faith efforts to distinguish between civilian and military targets. ‘The law of war does not require that commanders and other decision-makers apply a fixed standard of evidence or proof,’ the manual says. Rather, they ‘exercise professional judgment in making any assessment that a person or object is a military objective.’”
  • “Equally important is the principle of proportionality, whose meaning is widely misunderstood. Proportionality requires that the expected harms to civilians and civilian property from an attack can’t be ‘excessive’ when compared with ‘the concrete and direct military advantage expected to be gained.’ The comparison isn’t to the number of soldiers killed or to the number of casualties on each side of the conflict. Nor is there any upper limit on the number of civilian deaths that will trigger ‘war crimes’ if exceeded.  The manual clearly states that ‘in assessing the military advantage of attacking an object, one may consider the entire war strategy rather than only the potential tactical gains from attacking that object.’ There is a significant subjective component in making proportionality determinations. ‘It could often be the case that reasonable persons might disagree as to whether the expected civilian casualties from an attack would be excessive,’ the manual states. ‘Similarly, reasonable commanders might make different decisions in applying the principle of proportionality.’”
  • “A critical and too often ignored aspect of the laws of war is that each party to a conflict is primarily responsible for protecting its own civilian population by moving them away from military targets and taking other measures to shield them. Hamas not only fails to meet these obligations; it uses civilians as human shields and invites casualties for propaganda purposes. That doesn’t relieve Israel from its proportionality obligations, but the manual makes clear that additional civilian injuries resulting from this illegal tactic are ‘a factor that may be considered in determining whether such harm is excessive.’ Hamas is also looting aid shipments, making it more difficult for assistance to reach Gaza civilians.”

Based on these rules and “currently available credible evidence,” there is no reasonable case that Israel has violated the laws of war.  In contrast, Hamas  indisputably commits war crimes by deliberately attacking civilians, brutalizing Israeli women and children, taking hostages, systematically locating military facilities in or near civilian installations, and using Palestinian civilians as human shields.  If the U.S. and other nations follow the logic of these criticisms of Israel, the consequences will be dire. Most immediately, U.S. condemnations will embolden Israel’s enemies and could impede Israel’s ability to defeat Hamas.  Furthermore, if the US follows these standards of conduct it could impair the ability of all law-abiding nations to defend themselves.

See Bret Stephens, “Do We Understand How Wars are Won?” in the New York Times (29 May 2024) and David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey, “Israel, Hamas and the Law of War” in the Wall Street Journal (30 May 2024).

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