Walter Russell Mead Should say what he Means

This weekend, Ariel Sharon’s son Gilad published an instantly-notorious op-ed in which he called for Israel to abandon any attempt to distinguish combatants from civilians and “flatten all of Gaza” — a proposal of genocide or something close to it. The same day, however, saw the publication of another piece that was slightly more understated but arguably more striking, in that it came from Walter Russell Mead, a pillar of the East Coast foreign policy establishment who takes pains to market himself as a skeptical moderate. Mead suggested that although foreigners might take umbrage with Israel’s current assault on Gaza, “Americans” — or at least the red-blooded Jacksonian Americans about whom he frequently rhapsodizes — do not. Scorning the principle of proportionality (which he glosses as “[i]f the other guy comes at you with a stick, you can’t pull a knife”), “Americans” have a different view:

An endless war of limited intensity is worse, many Americans instinctively feel, than a time-limited war of unlimited ferocity. A crushing blow that brings an end to the war—like General Sherman’s march of destruction through the Confederacy in 1864-65—is ultimately kinder even to the vanquished than an endless state of desultory war….Certainly if some kind of terrorist organization were to set up missile factories across the frontier in Canada and Mexico and start attacking targets in the United States, the American people would demand that their President use all necessary force without stint or limit until the resistance had been completely, utterly and pitilessly crushed. Those Americans who share this view of war might feel sorrow at the loss of innocent life, of the children and non-combatants killed when overwhelming American power was used to take the terrorists out, but they would feel no moral guilt. The guilt would be on the shoulders of those who started the whole thing by launching the missiles.

He continues on in this vein, and by the end of the piece (where he rants about “the appalling blood lust of the unhinged loons who start a war they can’t win, and then cower behind the corpses of the children their foolishness has killed”) one can practically feel the spittle flying across one’s face through the computer screen.

We might note, first of all, that Mead seems to have no idea what “proportionality” means under the laws of war. It does not mean that “if the other guy comes at you with a stick, you can’t pull a knife,” an absurd proposition that would forbid any party from deploying superior technology on the battlefield. In the ius in bello context, which is what Mead is discussing, proportionality means that one is forbidden to use tactics that would cause an excessive amount of civilian collateral damage. (Indeed, it is this prohibition on indiscriminate attacks — enshrined in the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, Article 51 — that makes Hamas’s rocket attacks war crimes in their own right.) Mead’s visible contempt for international law does not seem to rest on even a passing familiarity with what it actually says.

What’s more striking is Mead’s apparent endorsement of the sort of bloodbath that Gilad Sharon has proposed. As usual, it’s difficult to pin Mead down, since in a typically cowardly and evasive manner he insists on attributing his views to “the American people” rather than arguing for them outright. (I’ve discussed his fallacious pro-Israel boosterism and overstatement of American popular support for Israel in this context before.) Rather than emitting yet another paean to the folksy wisdom of Jacksonian America, perhaps Mead would serve his readership better by stating explicitly what he’s proposing. Does he agree with his stylized version of the American people that Israel should “completely, utterly, and pitilessly” crush resistance in Gaza? Why or why not?

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.



  1. When I read Mead’s article I was stunned by his misinterpretation of proportionality and did a search to see whether others had noticed it. Glad to see that you did, and I enjoyed reading your little essay. With regard to Mead’s evasiveness, you put into articulate speech what I only felt vaguely.

  2. The Israelis want to destroy any possibility of Palestinian statehood. They want it all- that was Jabotinsky’s vision that was Sharon’s, and that is Netanyahu’s.
    It is not only “lebensraum”, nor is it only punishment (the proverbial mowing of grass or cutting of hair) to keep the Palestinians submissive and fearful, it is empire, hegemony, money, power and natural resources- in the case of Gaza, it is the offshore natural gas reserves that would fuel a Palestinian’s state’s development and economic independence and that Israel will forever try to prevent because it covets it for itself. Indeed, a deal which was negotiated by Arafat under duress and would have left the Palestinians 10% (of what one asks), is now being redrafted to take it all away for the benefit of the Americans (Noble Energy?), British (British Gas) and the Israelis, among others. These are reasons for flattening Gaza and destroying Hamas (and for demonizing the Palestinians and their aspirations, and denying their history and dispossession). One wonders how long America, British and EU will support, facilitate, and openly encourage these policies, without realizing that it is a long term recipe for disaster and suffering the consequences.

  3. Mea culpa. I meant say: “One wonders how long, America, Britain and the EU, will support and openly encourage these policies, before realizing that they are unsustainable, and, indeed, are a long term recipe for disaster.

  4. “Certainly if some kind of terrorist organization were to set up missile factories across the frontier in Canada and Mexico and start attacking targets in the United States, the American people would demand that their President use all necessary force without stint or limit until the resistance had been completely, utterly and pitilessly crushed.”

    What really pisses me off about Walter Russell Mead is how false and incomplete the premises of his analogies are. He should expand this one to include the United States invading, occupying and illegally settling Canadian territory. He should add how the United States has corralled the Canadians into a small part of their original territory, has repeatedly murdered occupants of that “prison”, automatically killed occupants who approach too close to the perimeter fence, blockaded the “prison” and allowed little more than starvation rations into the “prison” and destroyed virtually all economic activity within that prison. I could go on but Walter Russell Mead is not worth it as he, like many of his ilk, is beneath contempt.

  5. When i read WRM post i was instantly shocked about his words on proportionality and specially when he said that Israel have the right to defend itself, given that Hamas engaged the hostilities, which is not the case when you search for the timelines.

    At first, as a daily reader of his blog, i though it was a mistake from him, so yesterday i sent him a mail to express my views and my surprise about this lack of fact checking. I am a bit reassured that i am not the only one to feel a bit disgusted by his view and his way to address his readers, as if what he though was factual truth…

    At the time i though it probably was a mistake from him, but now after reading your post, well, i’m beginning to think that it was maybe not unintentional…

    Well, i am really disappointed, i guess i won’t read his blog as often as i used to do before.

    I’ll stop to recommend it too.

    Thanks for you post.

    ps : sorry for my english, i am French :-)

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