Abe Foxman: polemic turns to pratfall

Abe Foxman in HuffPo on why America should rally to Israel´s side, in the latest round of its war with Hamas, as if Washington is not rallying reflexively anyway:

We should also be standing with Israel because if we don’t, the scourge of missiles targeting civilian populations will become a world-wide epidemic.

Of all the arguments one could make now on Gaza – and many good ones have been made, here and elsewhere, sympathetic to Israelis, sympathetic to Palestinians – this must be the silliest. We must protect Manhattan from a hail of cheap rockets fired from Staten Island! But do do this, the bad guys must first seize control of Staten Island, which would surely be noticed. If Dr. Evil, with a more sophisticated version of the same plan, can defeat detection by sneaking up inshore in his super-stealth submarine, he has much better weaponry than Hamas. Sorry to be flippant, but Foxman´s scenario is indeed ridiculous.

Common sense is reinforced by the actual history of violence in the last century. The world has suffered from a fair number of states and non-state actors willing to target civilians. Have any used rockets, apart from Hitler, Hezbollah, Saddam and Hamas? (Hitler and Saddam as a tiny component of inter-state wars.) Rockets are very expensive per delivered kilo of explosive, can´t be aimed with precision, and are hard to hide. Most movements and states that have resorted to terrorising civilians, like the FLN, ETA, the IRA and the Tamil Tigers, have quite logically used bombs and guns, far cheaper and more effective. In the Cold War, rockets were reserved for nuclear weapons.

The use of explosive rockets by Hezbollah and Hamas depends on highly specific features of their conflict with Israel. On their side, they have (1) a state sponsor for supply (Iran) and (2) fairly secure territorial bases. Their adversary has (3) a dense population in a small area, hence no strategic depth, (4) superior tactics and social cohesion to prevent suicide bombs, and (5) a democratic polity making the government highly sensitive to civilian fears. Take away any of these five factors, and the tactic is infeasible or pointless.

Foxman´s tirade suceeeds a contrario in highlighting the fact that Hamas is no threat to the citizens of the United States. Is it a threat to the interests of the United States? Palmerstonian IR fundies like Mearheimer & Walt would say no. I don´t myself think you can define state interests in a democracy independently of the preferences of the electorate. If the American people want, for cultural reasons, to stand guarantor to the integrity of Israel, that´s fine by me, as long as the guarantee doesn´t slide into unconditional support of Israel´s most misguided actions. But let´s not pretend that their safety is at stake in Gaza.

BTW, if the US Congress were in the least interested in checking the executive, it would spend less time on pseudo-scandals like Benghazi statements and General Petraeus´ love-life. A better topic for investigation would be to ask what threat if any is posed now to (a) American interests, (b) ordinary Americans, by the various armed groups the Administration has chosen to attack as terrorists, the Taliban, Al-Shabaab in Somalia, and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Take it as read that these are not our first choice of rulers of these backwaters, and their local success is terrible for women´s rights, religious minorities, and anybody else they object to. Countries don´t usually go to war to protect such interests. But do any of these gangs have the desire or the capability to pursue bin Laden´s idiosyncratic (and in the eyes of most jihadis, crazy) direct assault on the Great Satan?


  1. Foster Boondoggle says


    Well, when you recall that one of the pieces of evidence claimed as justification for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was that they were building “drones” that could be used to deliver “weapons of mass destruction”, (i.e., large model airplanes, located in Iraq, and that could hold a few pounds of explosives or chemical weapons) it’s pretty clear that there’s a large, potentially receptive audience of the ignorant, innumerate and geographically challenged.

  2. says


    > I don´t myself think you can define state interests in a democracy independently of the preferences of the electorate.

    I think it stretches the term “state interests” past the breaking point if you take that position while refusing to admit that there are some areas where the electorate is flat-out unqualified to have an opinion on the matter. The overwhelming majority of Americans are almost completely ignorant of foreign affairs, and much of what they do know is wrong. Your caveat about “as long as the guarantee doesn´t slide into unconditional support of Israel´s most misguided actions” suggests to me that you actually agree on this point.

    Somewhere in his memoirs, G.F. Kennan observed that it’s basically impossible for a society with representative government to have a rational, consistent foreign policy. As a youthful idealist I was offended by that when I read it, but now that my beard is getting gray I pretty much agree.

    I guess that makes me a Palmerstonian IR fundie.

    • says


      I don´t say that that national interests = what the public wants. My anti-Palmerstonian argument was that multiple interests can´t be balanced except by political judgement, which in a democracy involves the electorate. For instance,by electing Onbama rather than Romney, whose general approach to Iran and other foreign policy issues clearly differed.

  3. Robert Waldmann says


    Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula clearly has the desire to attack the great Satan as demonstrated by Abdulmutalab’s (sp?) tighty whitey lighting. Also if they thought Bin Laden was nuts, they wouldn’t be al Qaeda franchisees.

    Yes going to war for women’s rights is unusual. But killing people using drones is not like sending our sons (and daughters these days) to kill and die.

    I think there are two invalid arguments: That we can’t afford the hell fire missiles for armed feminism and that drone warfare is immoral even if it is effective attempting to cross breed to make a valid argument. Might happen, but I think it is more likely that Palmerston or Kant cross breed and produce a child.

    I am taking into account the fact that they are both male and dead. Please take into acoount the fact that I am male and alive but not sober.

    • says


      1. Watch out for my next post.
      2. ¨Also if they thought Bin Laden was nuts, they wouldn’t be al Qaeda franchisees.¨ Not convincing. From early days, a lot of Christians have claimed the prestige of the franchise while denying the core worldview.

  4. Robert Waldmann says


    “acoount the fact” should be “account the facts” plus I now understand there was no risk that anyone might think I am sober.

  5. JR says


    So the only thing standing between us and worldwide misslerain is… Israel? Great, we can finally trim the defense budget now…

  6. Kt says


    And how is this different for us killing civilians at weddings and funerals in Afghanistan? We hardly are ones to tell people not to send missiles into populated areas.

  7. Freeman says


    Have any used rockets, apart from Hitler, Hezbollah, Saddam and Hamas?

    You left out the biggest player. Kt beat me to it. Targeting weddings and funerals IS targeting civilians.

  8. larry birnbaum says


    Missed this earlier…

    What is the point of this entry? Leader of American Jewish organization writes op-ed calling for American support for Israel, says it’s in America’s interest? For that matter, what’s the point of the appeal to Mearsheimer and Walt, those self-proclaimed doughty truth-tellers and guardians of the national interest?

    Excuse me, but you’re not an American. Abe Foxman is, and I have no doubt that he loves this country. It’s inappropriate to imply that any pretense is involved in his assessment even if you disagree with it.

    This entry unfortunately brings to mind your previous ill-advised defense of Gunter Grass.