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The Left, the Ethic of Responsibility, and Gaza

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Wall near the Erez Crossing, Gaza Strip, photo by the Author

In “Politics as a Vocation,” Max Weber contrasted the “ethic of ultimate ends” with the “ethic of responsibility.”

We must be clear about the fact that all ethically oriented conduct may be guided by one of two fundamentally differing and irreconcilably opposed maxims: conduct can be oriented to an ‘ethic of ultimate ends’ or to an ‘ethic of responsibility.’ This is not to say that an ethic of ultimate ends is identical with irresponsibility, or that an ethic of responsibility is identical with unprincipled opportunism. Naturally nobody says that. However, there is an abysmal contrast between conduct that follows the maxim of an ethic of ultimate ends­­ that is, in religious terms, ‘The Christian does rightly and leaves the results with the Lord’­­ and conduct that follows the maxim of an ethic of responsibility, in which case one has to give an account of the foreseeable results of one’s action.

You may demonstrate to a convinced syndicalist, believing in an ethic of ultimate ends, that his action will result in increasing the opportunities of reaction, in increasing the oppression of his class, and obstructing its ascent­­ and you will not make the slightest impression upon him. If an action of good intent leads to bad results, then, in the actor’s eyes, not he but the world, or the stupidity of other men, or God’s will who made them thus, is responsible for the evil. However a man who believes in an ethic of responsibility takes account of precisely the average deficiencies of people; as Fichte has correctly said, he does not even have the right to presuppose their goodness and perfection.

Weber’s essay, written in the shadow of the German Revolution of 1918-1919 and the Treaty of Versailles, enjoyed a small surge in popularity during the Trump years. It provided a handy language for criticisms of the anti-anti Trump left; it prompted one of its most prominent internet intellectuals, Corey Robin, to pen a New Yorker essay that went after Weberian political thought.

You can read Patrick Thaddeus Jackson’s response at this very blog. As he explains:

Why does this [living in a disenchanted world] make “collective transformation of the world” according to a revolutionary program impossible? Because politicians operate with one of three orientations, according to Weber: the “ethics of conviction” in which their putatively good end justifies the use of any and all evil means, especially the use of violent coercion; the cynical and amoral treatment of politics as a vehicle for personal enrichment or gratification (Trump, reportedly, only really liked going to rallies and feeling the adulation of the crowd); and Weber’s preferred option, an “ethics of responsibility,” in which the politician balances the twin imperatives of ethically praiseworthy ends and tragically necessary means in a way that prevents falling into either of the other two alternatives. Politics as the “slow boring of hard boards” (in the famous phrase attributed to Weber which is more of a free translation but effectively captures his meaning) is what prevents it from becoming the unfettered exercise of coercion either for individual profit or in the name of some grandiose cause — or, to name perhaps the truest nightmare, both at once, as might happen if an amoral cynic surrounds himself with ideological crusaders.

This touches on one of major frustrations with the “Genocide Joe” wing of the left—particularly those who would prefer a Trump victory to a vote for Biden if the latter does anything less than cut off U.S. military assistance entirely. It’s not so much that their position reflects an “ethics of ultimate ends,” but the—as far as I can tell—paucity of serious arguments in the register of the “ethics of responsibility.”

Regardless of what Trump says at any given moment, we have very strong evidence that would indulge the worst impulses of the Israeli far right. The Biden administration is quite likely the only reason any humanitarian aid is reaching Gaza; it seems clear that the “bear hug” strategy was designed, in part, to give the U.S. influence over the post-conflict settlement—with the aim of rebooting the two-state solution.

Most of the people in my orbit who favor an arms cutoff are still, at the end of the day, going to vote for Biden. But among them I see little discussion of why ending military aid will save a single resident of Gaza.

Jonathan Katz, for instance, ran a recent post with the title “Cut off Israel.” He points to the dubious legality of continuing to supply Israel with weapons. He catalogs the depredations of the Israeli campaign in Gaza. Katz clearly does not believe ending support for Israel will cause its government to change course; his appeal is centered on the moral taint of complicity:

Israelis love to shout about how they don’t need to justify their actions to anyone; that they are self-dependent and not a catspaw for any empire, including the U.S. Good. Then they can go out on their own. For us, as James Baldwin wrote in 1963, worse than being party to the crime of destroying hundreds of thousands of lives is the fact that we ‘do not know it and do not want to know it.’ It is, he said, ‘the innocence which constitutes the crime.’

I have enormous respect for Katz, and any differences we have on this matter are almost entirely ones of means, not ends. I spotlight his post only because I take what he has to say very seriously.

Nonetheless, I found his choice of quotations curious. It comes from an early passage in “A Letter to My Nephew”:

I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it and I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be–indeed, one must strive to become–tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of war; remember, I said most of mankind, but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.

Now, my dear namesake, these innocent and well meaning people, your countrymen, have caused you to be born under conditions not far removed from those described for us by Charles Dickens in the London of more than a hundred years ago.

Baldwin exhorts his nephew to join the hard work of fighting for racial equality.

I said that it was intended that you [his nephew, James] should perish in the ghetto, perish by never being allowed to go behind the white man’s definitions, by never being allowed to spell your proper name. You have, and many of us have, defeated this intention; and, by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality. But these men are your brothers—your lost, younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become. It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved and unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.

Now, I don’t see any clear analogy here. But if you pressed me on the matter, I would hazard that Baldwin’s words suggest something rather different—that whatever the broader merits of cutting off military aid, doing so in no way absolves the United States of responsibility for death and destruction in the Levant.

The question of the “broader merits” brings us back to the “ethic of responsibility.”

If we want to improve the situation—say, minimize the death and suffering of any and all noncombatants, end the horrific (and illegal) treatment of captured Gazans, increase the likelihood of a just postwar settlement, or decrease ethnic cleansing on the West Bank—then what we most care about are the effects of cutting off U.S. military aid. Put differently, we would ideally like to know the possible effects and their relative probability of coming to pass.

The main argument (at least that I can find) in favor of cutting off aid focuses on Israel’s shortage of munitions. Israel has an extremely successful defense industry, but it currently lacks the capacity to fulfill its own wartime needs. The U.S. normally stockpiles munitions in Israel, but those had already been sent to Ukraine.

A number of reports suggest that, in consequence, Israel was woefully unprepared to wage war against Hamas.

The problems were particularly felt in the artillery units. Reservists of various ranks have spoken of unpredictable and irregular shipments of munitions, which created a logistical and operational nightmare that significantly raised the risk of misfires and missed targets.

The shortage even led to the use of munitions dating back to the 1950s, which were in poor condition, produced unusually high quantities of smoke that made it difficult for crews to fire for prolonged periods of time and left the barrels of the cannons filthy.

Given that we are in the midst of a global munitions shortage, the extent that Israel can substitute for U.S. military assistance remains unclear. Israel is apparently already looking for alternative suppliers, but it’s not obvious where they would find them. Even with increased domestic production, Israel is still highly dependent on U.S. support.

As Robert Reich argues:

If Biden were to stop providing offensive military aid to Israel, Israel would have to choose between continuing its current military campaign in Gaza or saving munitions to ward off other hostile forces, particularly Hezbollah and Iran.

Israel would be under huge pressure to find an alternative to its present course.

I lack the expertise—that is, deep knowledge of Israel’s currently available munitions, short- and medium-term production capacity, and how both shape IDF operational considerations—to fully assess these claims. The same is true of basically everyone I’ve found who endorses this line of argument.

It is also possible that a cutoff would have extremely dangerous consequences.

Simon Pratt has a sobering essay in Foreign Policy about the information war over Gaza. He is particularly concerned with the degree that critics fail to distinguish between credible and dubious allegations of war crimes:

Much of the Israeli public has been conditioned by its politicians and media, for decades, to view foreign critics as implacably hostile, prejudiced, and uninterested in their right to safety. Audiences refusing to accept claims of Hamas atrocities, perhaps jaded by Israel’s own unconfirmed allegations, and willing to accept thinly evidenced claims of monstrous behavior by the IDF affirm this perception and make Israel less likely to deescalate. Put simply, if foreign critics deny Israeli suffering and believe Israel guilty of every alleged wrongdoing, they alienate everyone in Israel, including those otherwise sympathetic to calls for restraint.

The relevant issue here is not Pratt’s specific argument about the information war, but rather the underlying reason for his concerns.

One political scientist has referred to this as a “Masada complex,” in which the Israeli public imagines itself to be a besieged people facing death, with no option but resistance even to the point of suicide. … Perpetual sensitivity to the possibility of Jewish genocide has led to a militaristic society in which the IDF and the political elite are intertwined. For Israelis… geopolitics carry a perpetual awareness of the apocalypse. The upshot of all this is a “security concept” fixated on overwhelming military power and anxious about the very survival of the Jewish people.

Israelis believe foreign audiences have dismissed the genocidal threat posed by Hamas while unreasonably inflating the destruction the IDF has inflicted. Lampooned in sketches by Israel’s famous comedy show Eretz Nehederet, Israelis believe foreign media is quick to believe the worst about Israel in any dispute over a mass death event during war while treating Hamas as legitimate and reasonable representatives rather than monstrous terrorists.

He continues:

At the moment, the Israeli public is united in support of its military activities, even as it continues to be fractured by domestic opposition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right governing coalition. More extreme figures such as politicians Itamar Ben-Gvir, as well as celebrities such as Eyal Golan and government ministers in non-security portfolios, have called for unambiguous retaliatory genocide. The broader public does not necessarily support these calls but is convinced that if it cannot win the war, the future of the country and its people is at risk.

Confronted with public opinion polls showing very high levels of Palestinian support for Hamas and for the Oct. 7 attack, and by some apparent foreign enthusiasm for the massacre from segments of the global anticolonial movement, Israelis believe that their fight is an existential one. They are convinced that hostile foreign audiences simply do not understand or care about the future of their country—making them ignorant at best and threats at worst.

For much of the Israeli public, a cease-fire—or even an imposed reduction in military intensity—is an unthinkable concession if the current war is an existential one. To be clear, this is an extreme reaction to reasonable demands for greater protection for civilians facing horrendous conditions of bombardment, displacement, and deprivation. Israel’s militarism, tendency to identify all threats as existential, and unwillingness to treat foreign criticism as good faith are causing a brutal callousness to Palestinian suffering.

Consider the possibility that the immediate end of U.S. military assistance would make the current war genuinely existential. It would also remove the single most important source of U.S. leverage over Israel.

Reich is probably right about the immediate effect of an aid cutoff. It “would” put Israel “under huge pressure to find an alternative to its present course.” I also worry that the “alternative” would not be deescalation.

A distinct possibility is the use of a full-blown “draining the sea” counterinsurgency strategy in Gaza—one that would realize fears of explicit ethic cleansing, if not straight-up genocide. This might be accompanied by unfettered ethic cleansing in the West Bank. The aim would be to quickly “solve” those “problems” in order to pivot to an expected—or already underway—war against Hezbollah and Iran.

Indeed, the U.S. abandonment of an overextended Israel would, I suspect, totally upend deterrence in the Middle East; we could be talking about a recipe for a regional war, one pitting a nuclear-armed Israel against its most committed adversaries.

This is one reason why its highly unlikely that the Biden administration is going to immediately suspend U.S. support for Israel. The more likely shift in U.S. policy involves getting serious about conditioning, informally or formally, its assistance on changes in Israel’s approach to Gaza.

It should be clear to readers that I am extremely skeptical of the wisdom of simply terminating U.S. military assistance. My current view is that the best option is to get serious about conditioning U.S. assistance on general compliance with international humanitarian laws and norms.

But I am even more skeptical of making U.S. policy toward the conflict based solely on the “ethic of conviction.”

Israel, Gaza, Lebanon, the West Bank, Jordan… these are real places that are home to real human beings. Far too many of them have died. Far too many of them are suffering. More are in imminent peril, and even more are at great risk.

U.S. policy has played, and will play, a significant role in determining their fate. None of them deserve to be reduced to abstractions in an American morality play.

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