Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

A Proportional Response

The debate over the behavior of the IDF during the conflict in Gaza reminded me of an episode from the first season of West Wing, “A Proportional Response”.  At the beginning of the episode, a jet carrying American citizens, President Bartlett’s personal doctor among them, is blown up by terrorists connected to the Syrian government.

In the first clip, President Bartlett is briefed by his national security team over the response options.  President Bartlett interrupts and asks, “What is the virtue of a proportional response?”

In the second clip, Leo McGarry confronts President Bartlett about his desire to seek a disproportional response.

Without getting into the I/P debate (at least point, I think we all know where we stand on this issue), I wondering what you all think about the virtue of a proportional response?  Is a disproportional response ever justified?  Do you think it could act as a deterrent?


  1. anna shane

    If you look at this thing as if it started with the election of Hamas, then it’s possible, although heartless, to see the destruction of Gaza as necessary, since it’s next door and a sworn enemy that fires rockets and won’t give up.

    But there were responses and counter-responses going back decades. There was the election of Sharon, who had allowed militias into the Palestine refugee city in Lebanon, to slaughter, and who buried victims in mass graves.  He got elected?  He wasn’t in prison?

    And then the pokes in the eye started from a government position. Before that it had mainly been New Yorkers living in settlements that poked the Palestinians, with their use of water, marauding through markets and shooting people, while there was no ‘legal’ response allowed to their victims, and continuing land grabbing.  Sharon took over the temple mount for his own party (he had that right, damn it!)  which provoked the second intafadah, this one with bullets (the first had beens stones, no shooting at all).  

    If we think no peace is possible, then wiping out the palestinians in Gaza can be seen, from a certain heartless perspective, as necessary, to remove Hamas and kill all their leaders.  

    but, if we think that even now peace is possible, and look at Ireland, and South Africa, and American African-Americans, we can see that things can change and people can forgive and move on to provide better lives for their children.

    So, yes, this is disproportional, but that started long ago.  All that previous disproportional has lead the Israeli population to accept this as necessary.  It was never necessary and if you believe in peace and human decency as does our new president, it still isn’t.  

    Make peace, not war, isn’t just a slogan, it’s smart.  

  2. Strummerson

    The problem I have with the concept of “proportional response” is that in order to determine proportion one necessarily has to enter into a cost/benefit analysis.  It’s not only an issue of what is warranted, but what response places a larger proportion of the cost on the enemy and a greater share of the benefit towards one’s own interests.  The moral problem is that determination of ‘cost’ is measured in numbers of lives and the infrastructure that supports life.  Ultimately, it may be necessary even though morally repugnant to engage in these calculations.  But I find it difficult to quantify the value of a human life, or the relative values of different lives.  How much is a combatant worth?  How much a child?  A grandparent?  A student?  A doctor?  A mother of 2?  A father of 4?  A poet?  An engineer?

    What I do feel comfortable arguing is that Israeli policy has been chronically short-sighted and thus fifty kinds of stupid throughout much of my lifetime.  I don’t see this episode as accomplishing anything positive long term.

    One last thought: Does calculating a proportional versus a disproportional response provide a clearer perspective than the business/personal divide in the Godfather mythos?  Is violence more justified if it is the name of calculated benefit of a community’s interests?  Are they really divisible?

  3. In an arbitrary non-existent scenario where some group really really bad (like, say, Al Qaeda) does something and you can respond with massively disproportionate consequences directly at the people responsible – it is not only OK but quite possibly great.  The threat of such disproportionate response has kept a lot of peace: both sides of the Cold War knew that using a single nuke would bring 10,000 down on their heads; Kim Jung Il (if he’s still alive) knows that one of his nukes going off in S. Korea will mean the eradication of his country; etc.

    Where it becomes a more difficult question is when there is no way to strike back at the perpetrator directly.  Afghanistan fortunately provided a state target to represent Al Qaeda (if we had stopped there… but I digress).

    Another part of this is: “What do you do after your disproportionate response?”.  If some goof takes a swing at you and you respond by knocking him unconscious with a handy chair (I would), the proper followup response IMO is to have someone call an ambulance while you bandage the goof up.

    In Afghanistan we were imo more than justified with our massively disproportionate response, but we screwed up the followup.  I think Israel is more or less justified with their response to rocket fire, but they have not impressed me at all with their followup, either.

  4. it just that in retrospect deterrence seems well – wrong.  i think that the US is the captain of the deterrent team, see japan, iraq – but i think that you raise an interesting point in that deterrence is an important factor in deterrence.

  5. …and proportionality is an important component in the rules of war. According to the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court

    Under international humanitarian law and the Rome Statute, the death of civilians during an armed conflict, no matter how grave and regrettable, does not in itself constitute a war crime. International humanitarian law and the Rome Statute permit belligerents to carry out proportionate attacks against military objectives,[1] even when it is known that some civilian deaths or injuries will occur. A crime occurs if there is an intentional attack directed against civilians (principle of distinction) (Article 8(2)(b)(i)) or an attack is launched on a military objective in the knowledge that the incidental civilian injuries would be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage (principle of proportionality) (Article 8(2)(b)(iv)


    International jurists will be looking at the last 20 days and determining whether this law has been broken.

    As for deterrence: it clearly hasn’t worked at some level in terms of the number of rockets Hamas launched. At a more profound level, deterrence theory is also a form of proportionality: if South Korea gets shelled over the DMZ, they aim their shells at the offending artillery. If the US detected the launch of Soviet Missiles, the US would have immediately launched a counterstrike before the USSR took out its bases. Deterrence really only works if there is a balance of power between both sides – and actually fails if, for example, through Star Wars technology, the US found a way of taking out Russian missiles before they struck.

    If the recent Gaza conflict is a form of deterrence, then it is a novel form of collective punishment. Since Hamas provides instrastructure and social services as well as a military wing, then this kind of ‘deterrence’ is aimed at the population: support Hamas and look what happens to your infrastructure and social services.

    This may be the underlying message, but as a form of civilian collective punishment takes us well outside the norms established since WW2

  6. SpanishFly

    If there’s a disproportinate response available that won’t harm a disproportionate number of innocents, I’d take it.  If an enemy shot down or bombed a passanger jet, I’d be all for wiping out their entire airforce or destroying their capital buildings, etc.  Whatever it takes to send the message that we’re nuts and not to be fucked with.

    As long as I’m not committing ground forces to long term involvement.  And, of course, we’d need intelligence that proved guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

  7. creamer

    contemplate taking the action. I think Saddam miscalculated in the first Gulf War. He talked tough, was a 1st class asshole, but had know intrest in fighting the U.s. His goal was always to hang on to power.

    Even Viet Nam came to understand this in dealing with Nixon/Kissinger. Kissinger reportedly told hid Vietnameese counterparts in Paris that Nixon was nuts and would continue to ramp up bombing of North Viet Nams cities if peace was not attained. They then negotiated us out, so thay could later finish their work in the south.

    Both theese examples deal with nation states, and as was noted above, this all seems to go out the window when dealing with people with nothing to lose.

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