The Iran Retaliation Calculus
Plus: Ukraine war goes sci-fi, AI-boosted bio-terrorism, AI-boosted Tinder swiping, China on the Red Sea, and more!
This week, as President Biden was deciding how to respond to the killing of three American soldiers by an Iran-backed militia, and hawkish commentators were recommending an attack on Iran, someone asked Biden if he holds Iran responsible for the three deaths. He said, "I do hold them responsible in the sense that they're supplying the weapons to the people who did it."
This led William Hartung of the Quincy Institute to wonder aloud on Twitter, “Does he feel the same way about the 26,000 deaths caused by US weapons in Gaza?”
Interesting question. And it raises other questions—questions that might be directed toward Senators Lindsey Graham and Tom Cotton and anyone else who advocated attacking Iran as punishment for the actions of Iran-backed militias. Namely:
(1) Isn’t it fair to call Israel “US-backed” in roughly the same sense that some militias in the Middle East are “Iran-backed”—since the US provides Israel’s weapons and ammo and gives it logistical and political support and shares intelligence with it?
(2) Shouldn’t Graham and Cotton, if they want to be consistent, therefore say that any country attacked by Israel has the right to retaliate by attacking the US?
For example: Is Iran entitled to assassinate a few Americans in retaliation for the Iranian nuclear scientists that Israel has assassinated? Can Syria respond to Israel’s many air strikes on Syrian targets by striking America?
Or take Lebanon. Do aggrieved Lebanese have the right to kill Americans as payback for Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in the late 1970s and again in the 1980s? (Israel was in pursuit of Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Liberation Organization, which had relocated from Jordan to Lebanon and at that point was still a sworn enemy of Israel’s. As it happens, the invasion would spawn an organized resistance to the Israeli occupiers, known as Hezbollah—which, of course, is now “Iran-backed”).
Obviously, Graham and Cotton, if confronted with these questions, would quickly identify critical distinctions between the “US-backed Israel” case and the “Iran-backed militias” case. For example, they’d say that Iran-backed groups practice terrorism, whereas Israel doesn’t.
Whether you agree with them, and whether I agree with them, doesn’t matter much. More important is that large numbers of people in the Middle East don’t agree with them. And since a core principle of this newsletter is that there’s always value in understanding how people—friends, enemies, frenemies, whatever—view the world, it’s worth listing some questions these Middle Easterners might have for Graham and Cotton. Questions like:
(1) Is assassinating an Iranian physics professor really so different, morally, from killing other kinds of civilians—and isn’t it in any event a flagrant violation of Iranian law and international law?
(2) And what about the tactics Israel employed in Lebanon after invading it? As the Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman documents in his book Rise and Kill, Israeli operatives planted lots of bombs—18 in one month alone—in cars, homes, offices, and other places, and attributed the bombings to a fake, supposedly Lebanese, group called “Front for the Liberation of Lebanon from Foreigners.” Hundreds of people were killed—many of them PLO members, but some of them Lebanese supporters of the PLO and some of them Lebanese civilians who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. A single bombing killed 83 people and wounded 300, Bergman writes, “including many women who were trapped in a fire in a clothing factory owned by the PLO.”
(3) And what about what’s happening in Gaza? With around one percent of Gaza’s civilians killed by Israel, and not nearly that many Hamas militants killed, is it crazy to think that Israel’s aims go beyond “eliminating Hamas” and include terrorizing Gazans into abandoning their homes and fleeing toward the border with Egypt?
I want to emphasize that I’m not taking a position on these questions. I’m just trying to explain why, to many people in the Middle East, the grounds for hating America over the behavior of “US-backed Israel” feel just as solid as the grounds for hating Iran over the behavior of “Iran-backed militias” feel to Graham and Cotton and many other Americans.
I’m also suggesting that if we were in the shoes of these Middle Easterners, we’d feel the way they feel. That’s human nature: When we find our tribe in a conflict, the conviction that our tribe is right and the other tribe is wrong materializes—and is sustained by confirmation bias and various other cognitive biases.
All of which brings us back to the original question: Is it legitimate to retaliate against the sponsor of a geopolitical actor for the actor’s transgressions or is that not legitimate? My insistence that it can be one or the other, but not both—that whatever the rules are, they should apply to everyone—may seem naively idealistic. And some regular readers of this newsletter may have had the same reaction to my past sermons about the importance of cultivating respect for international law. But this devotion to a rules-based order (a real one, not the fake one that US foreign policy is devoted to upholding) is actually grounded as much in cynicism as idealism; it’s grounded in recognition of how stubbornly human nature biases our moral calculus in favor of ourselves and our tribe.
After all, that’s the recognition that the rule of law within a nation is grounded in. We give courts the power to identify transgressions and adjudicate disputes because if we didn’t do that all hell would break loose, given the difficulty we have in transcending our self-serving biases. So it makes sense that, in relations between nations, all hell will continue to break loose unless we nurture respect for international law—and, in the long run, nurture the evolution of adjudicatory institutions whose rulings are respected.
So, yeah, highlighting inconsistencies and hypocrisies in American policy, or the policy of any other nation, may seem like an academic exercise. And the prospect that such exercises will help create a world where basic rules of the road command widespread allegiance, and draw strength from international institutions, may seem like a long shot. And it is a long shot. But if you want to see the alternative to such a world, take a look at the Middle East.
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This week the Guardian, drawing on satellite images and open-source visual media, published an interactive graphic that paints a grim picture of Gaza. More than half of all buildings have been damaged or destroyed by the Israeli military since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, according to experts cited by the Guardian.
The swaths of destruction depicted in the Guardian’s overhead view of Gaza—the red patches in the map below—are so large as to raise a question or two: How many populated parts of Gaza haven’t been bombed by Israel? How many neighborhoods have been spared? So we tracked down a map that shows the distribution of Gaza’s population before the war. Comparing it to the Guardian’s map suggests that the answer to those two questions is: Not many.
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