Ira Straus

US Harms Israel – and Itself – by Its Language on the Houthi War

The Biden administration’s language from the start about its strikes against the Houthis – that this was “proportionate, discriminating retaliation” — was meant, in part, as a backhanded way of falsely accusing Israel of doing the opposite.

The media picked up on this immediately: that in calling our strikes “proportionate”, Biden and Blinken implied that Israel was being “disproportionate”. This fit in with Biden’s false accusations of Israel of bombing “indiscriminately,” without regard for civilians, in Gaza. And with falsely treating Israel’s actions as merely retaliatory and therefore bad if they went beyond a “proportionate” tit for tat.

The language is false also in saying that our own response — striking the Houthis — is a mere retaliation. In fact it too is a military action with legitimate objectives. But we haven’t developed those objectives through rational discussion. The false language suppresses that, the very fundament of sound policy.

It is false also in assuming that military actions should be proportionate to the harm received. In fact under international law they should be proportionate to the military objective. And they should be that way for very good practical reasons as well. Morality in war is to try to achieve the goal, with minimum unnecessary harm; not to hit back tit for tat and never make it to a goal.

In short: it is false in almost every possible way.

The falsity is in part malicious. It is aimed at implying ugly things about Israel – things that the Administration should know are untrue. It has more than enough information to know they’re untrue.

Why does it lie? And is it lying deliberately to the world, or to itself as well?

Several possible explanations:

The Administration may fail to fully understand that what it’s saying is untrue. The dominant media all around it are repeating the same lies, and they reward Biden when he chimes in.

It may prefer not to understand the truth. It may feel better about itself if it contrasts itself favorably with Israel. This is the usual motivation for slandering others. But this does not exempt a slanderer of culpability. If he has ample opportunity to know that his accusations are false and his rationalizations for them untenable, then he is responsible to know this and it is indeed malicious slander. (Just ask any good slander lawyer.)

It may find it politically expedient to chime in with the lying, in order to get back a bit in tandem with its left-progressive base.

It may have a visceral dislike of taking military action in a rational way, or at achieving a military objective hard and fast. It may think of this as too crude and primitive. Thus, perhaps, the famous “self-deterrence” that we have seen in its two years of inadequate arming of Ukraine. Thus the repeated aversion to steps that would probably have won in both wars; and the same aversion, from the same team under Obama, in the 2012-2016 wars in Syria and Ukraine.

All these explanations probably have an element of truth.

They add up to a dangerously strong motivation for self-defeating behavior. And for lying about it in a way that damages our ability to think straight and act seriously.

About the Author
Chair, Center for War/Peace Studies; Senior Adviser, Atlantic Council of the U.S.; formerly a Fulbright professor of international relations; studied at Princeton, UVA, Oxford. Institutions named above for identification purposes only; views expressed herein are solely the responsibility of the author.
Related Topics
Related Posts