Politics & Policy

Collateral Damage

Israel understands.

So, the Iraqi military cut off the water for the people of Basra last week, shot civilians trying to flee and soldiers trying to surrender, hid behind women and children, used false surrender to attack, rammed a bus into a tank, and blew up a civilian taxi in a suicide strike. There are tanks inside hospital compounds and command facilities in residential neighborhoods. Oil wells and oil trenches have been set on fire, causing ecological damage and burning up the Iraqi people’s future. They mined the port at Umm Qasr through which humanitarian aid has to pass, delaying the supply of food and medicine to their own.

There is no reason to be surprised by the “dirty fighting.” There is nothing new about the battle standards of dictatorial forces, particularly in Iraq. Moreover, the president made a substantial case that the war against the Iraqi regime is one part of the war against terrorists and the states that harbor and support them. Tactics, training, money, and ideology are exchanged across the region; they were dancing in Gaza after that car bomb. Ousting Saddam is only one part of draining the swamp from which terrorists emerge.

The U.S. has criticized Israel’s military for its tactics against an enemy similarly entrenched among civilians. The criticism is generally muted, but American officials frequently and publicly regret “collateral” casualties in Jenin or Gaza.

The good news for civilization is that both the IDF and the allied coalition regard civilian casualties as “collateral” — and tragic. The bad guys regard them as “the point.”

The best way to protect civilians is for aggressive regimes to stop being aggressive — the Palestinians have only to stop launching attacks on buses and restaurants in Israel and no doubt there would be no more Israeli attacks to risk “collateral damage.” Saddam has only to give up — or put his army on the battlefield — and no doubt the U.S. would be relieved to shelve plans for the battle of Baghdad.

But since neither is likely, the second best way to protect civilians is to remove the dictators and terrorists who let civilians die to protect the regime.

This is the nexus between Israel’s war against terrorists and our own. Human shields are human shields whether cowards live among them hoping for protection, or put them around factories on the assumption that the U.S. won’t strike a facility surrounded by the fifth grade class of the local elementary school.

Would we? What if they publish photographs and the New York Times carries them on the front page? Will we go for the greater good and have heartburn afterward — like Israel does?

As we make our plans, it would be useful for the U.S. to remember that there is little we will see of an Arab dictator’s callousness toward his own people that Israel hasn’t already seen; little our military will face in urban warfare that Israel hasn’t already faced; few mistakes that we will make that Israel hasn’t also made. We will explain ourselves in words Israel has already used.

Will we be deterred? Israel is not. Neither of us can afford to be.

We will learn what Israel already has painfully learned. Defense Department Assistant Secretary Victoria Clarke said last week, “Any death that occurs (in this context) is the direct result of Saddam Hussein.” The American military says it will adapt to the nasty circumstances while maintaining its policy of working to minimize the loss of civilian life.

When the time comes, the allied Coalition in Iraq will be understood to have been on the right side of civilization and the right side of history. And Israel will be there, too.

Shoshana Bryen is director of special projects at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

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