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On Morality and Restraint
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On Morality and Restraint

‘Israel’s campaign isn’t a police action to arrest criminals—it is war.’

Fans at the UEFA EURO 2024 European qualifier match between Israel and Romania on November 18, 2023 hold banners depicting hostages taken by Hamas last month. The match was held at Puskas Akademia Pancho Arena near Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by David Balogh/Getty Images)

Allow me to let my inner hawk off his leash for a moment. I did not think that the conversation about Hamas’ brutal—ongoing—massacre of Israeli civilians could get any more banal or dishonest, but it has.

A few points: 

The moral test for Israel is not whether its leaders can show superhuman restraint in their response to the massacres and outrages inflicted on their people by Hamas. In light of the kidnapping, the hostage-taking, the rape and dismemberment of children, the burning to death of babies, the beheadings, the theatrical sadism inflicted on women, children, the elderly, it is remarkable how much restraint the Israelis have shown. They have, in my view, shown incommensurate restraint, if I may be forgiven some friendly criticism at this ghastly moment.

No, the great test for Israel is not restraint at all, but diligence in its national pursuit of the actual moral imperative in front of it, which is the annihilation of Hamas. Put bluntly: Israel’s moral imperative at this moment is in the major part a matter of killing and only in the minor part a matter of not killing. Justice, prudence, and responsible government all call for the same thing at this moment: hunting down and killing as many of the men responsible for this atrocity as possible, beginning with Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh. 

The Four Seasons in Doha is very keen to repeat that the Hamas boss absolutely, positively does not live in a penthouse suite in the hotel. Really, truly: He is in some other penthouse suite, or perhaps a beachfront villa, elsewhere in Qatar, living the good life as a guest of the hereditary monarchy that has long sheltered and funded the terrorist organization. The Qataris are to Hamas what the Taliban was to al-Qaeda, and Qatar is, functionally, very little more than Afghanistan with money. The United States cut a bloody road through Afghanistan and Pakistan to get at Osama bin Laden, but Qatar has been treated with extraordinary deference rooted in American political miscalculation. Back to that in a minute. 

The important point is this: Israel’s campaign isn’t a police action to arrest criminals—it is war. The applicable model isn’t Eliot Ness vs. Al Capone in 1931 Chicago—it is Air Marshal Arthur Harris vs. Wilhelm Keitel in 1945 Germany. Keitel, the commander of Adolf Hitler’s armed forces, survived the war but not the peace, a necessary precondition of which was his being hanged. To the extent that international law enters into this, it is largely on Israel’s side: Israel does not willfully target civilians, Hamas does; Israel does not torture captured civilians, Hamas does; Israel does not target legally protected sites such as hospitals, Hamas converts those sites into legal targets by using them as staging grounds for military actions and as hidey-holes to cower in when they are faced with soldiers instead of toddlers.

Israel is unhappily obliged to live and work in a world in which its leaders must give excessive consideration to worldwide elite opinion (and please do not mistake me here for using the word elite in the imbecilic pejorative sense it is deployed in our domestic political conversation), unhappily because that opinion is distorted by neurotic Jew-loathing. That loathing flourishes in European capitals and among critical constituencies in the Democratic Party here in the United States, where you can have a comfortable career as an MSNBC pundit after helping to launch a pogrom against Jews in New York, where you can have the ear of Barack Obama while indulging an imaginatively expansive Judenhass the expression of which would have embarrassed Wilhelm Stuckart, who authored the Nuremberg racial code. 

Joe Biden may not be naturally inclined to listen to the likes of Linda Sarsour—he certainly is less inclined than Barack Obama was—but he has a problem with another key Democratic constituency: everybody else. When President Biden looks in the mirror, he sees Jimmy Carter, a creaky one-term embarrassment (it is sobering to realize that Carter on the final day of his presidency was a quarter of a century younger than Biden is today) whose many failures in office brought Ronald Reagan romping into power in a 44-state Electoral College blowout. (There is no point sugar-coating the political reality; that being said, my condolences to the former president and his family on the loss of Rosalynn Carter, who died over the weekend at the age of 96.) With persistent inflation mugging everybody trying to buy a new car or a house, Biden very much fears a modern version of the Arab oil embargo and the possibility of seeing gasoline at $6 or $7 a gallon on Election Day. There are many reasons that scenario is not especially likely to come to pass, but it would be a non-issue if the U.S. government would take its foot off the neck of U.S. energy production. All of that oil and gas represents not just wealth but options. Having reduced those options in the pursuit of utopian green-energy fantasies (or, rather, in the pursuit of approval from those utopians), Biden is constrained and cautious, and the U.S. economy remains beset by inflation in the non-energy sectors as well. With Biden hearing footsteps on his left, Israel gets it from all directions—from The Economist, from Davos Man, from teary-eyed Bernie bros—which would matter a good deal less with a more steady ally in the White House. But President Biden is not capable of steadiness on this issue, or on any other. 

“We don’t negotiate with terrorists.” That’s the way Hollywood heroes put it, and sometimes the way Washington puts it, and it is a fiction in both cases. But the underlying principle is the right one. By negotiating with terrorists, hostage-takers, and the like, you create positive incentives for more terrorism and more hostage-taking. It is easy to say, “We will not negotiate with hostage-takers” when it isn’t your child who has been carried off to some Hamas dungeon. But while world opinion demands that Israel in effect collaborate with Hamas in its terrorism, in its hostage-taking and its use of human shields (the people of Gaza are, to some extent, hostages themselves, with Hamas snipers reportedly shooting civilians who try to flee to safety), refusing to cooperate is precisely what it necessary. The proper response to a bunker built under a hospital is a bunker-buster. The Palestinians could have had peace any time they wanted it, and they have always, consistently, remorselessly chosen war. Now they have it, and they are whimpering. We have seen this sort of thing before—the Nazis did the same thing after Dresden, and German neo-Nazis still call Dresden their own holocaust. It was grotesque, dishonest cowardice then, and it is grotesque, dishonest cowardice now. 

It was not Israel who put that Hamas command outpost under the hospital—it was Hamas. Michael Ramirez’s now-famous cartoon—cravenly suppressed by the editors of the Washington Post, where journalism goes to die in darkness—got it precisely right. Israel did not choose this war—the Palestinians did. Israel did not put those children, women, and hospital patients in harm’s way—the Palestinians did. (Say “Hamas did it,” if you prefer, but Hamas didn’t come out of nowhere. It is a Palestinian phenomenon, and the Jew-massacring part of its mission is a popular Palestinian cause, and a horrifyingly popular cause in the wider Arab world.) The task of the Israeli government is not to offer the world another edifying example of picturesque Jewish suffering. The task of the Israeli government is to defend its people and its territory. If Hamas wants to put Palestinian children between Israeli soldiers and Hamas terrorists, then the deaths of those children will rightly be understood as an atrocity—but it is Hamas’ atrocity, not the Israeli Defense Forces’ atrocity. 

This is not a time or an occasion for moral muddiness or intellectual flabbiness. There are hard truths that are understood in at least some Israeli quarters but that are effectively impossible for the Israeli government to act on without Washington’s support. And there is very little evidence that the reality of the situation has sunk in in Washington: that offering the Palestinians land for peace was a well-intentioned folly; that there is not going to be a two-state solution, because the only state the Palestinians are interested in building is an Arab version of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the only solution they are interested in is Heinrich Himmler’s final one. Hence, Israeli security and Palestinian sovereignty are mutually exclusive goals; the Palestinians have had three-quarters of a century to make peace and have not made peace because they do not desire peace; Israel should, and at some point almost certainly will, reassert practical sovereignty over Gaza and the West Bank for the same reason the French reasserted sovereignty over Alsace-Lorraine in 1945, at which time very few tears were shed for the Germans. 

I do keep coming back to the German example. It is an instructive one, and not only because the Nazis and Hamas have the same goal, that being the eradication of the Jewish people.  

The world was not at war on October 16, 1946; the war had concluded, and Germany was in no real position to threaten anybody. U.S. soldiers spent the early morning hours of that day hanging Germans, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel among them. (Fritz Sauckel, who once had rejoiced in the title “General Plenipotentiary for Labor Deployment”—and you can guess what labor deployment meant in that context—complained that he was being treated very unfairly and offered as his last words, “Make Germany great again!”) They would have hanged more Germans if Hermann Göring hadn’t committed suicide the night before. Winston Churchill, who was not enthusiastic about the legal process at Nuremberg, would have had most of the Nazi leadership simply shot on sight if he had had his way, without the trials. And Churchill, as usual, had the better argument. In our time, a dedicated few are still hunting down Nazis: In 2022, a 101-year-old German was convicted for his role in running the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen; earlier this year, a 98-year-old German was charged over crimes at the same camp. 

Germany lost territory after its defeat in World War II, paid reparations, and was occupied by foreign forces. Germany was formally stripped of its sovereignty and did not get it back in full until 1991—and I do not mean East Germany under Soviet domination but West Germany, over which the Allied powers maintained formal legal power until after reunification. Germany was reduced after the war and, some decades later, the expanded Soviet empire was disbanded and Moscow’s footprint in the world much reduced. Hirohito’s empire was liquidated after Japan’s defeat, as Napoleon’s had been before Hirohito’s and many more had been before that. Vanquished powers—and, especially, vanquished powers that start unprovoked wars of aggression—suffer all kinds of reductions and limitations, and some of them go away altogether. Question: Why, exactly, do we believe that the Palestinian statelet, led by Hamas on one side and by Mahmoud Abbas’ homicidal mafia on the other, must endure forever? 

I cannot think of an answer. 

But, while I am in a question-asking mood, here is another: 

How is it possible that Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, is walking around in daylight? The attack on Israel was certainly planned, financed, and managed from within Qatar, where the leadership of Hamas resides—in great comfort and with great wealth—with the blessing of the Qatari government. With all due respect to the Israelis and others who suffered the brunt of that horrific attack, there were Americans killed, too—and there are American hostages. One of those American hostages is 3 years old. The emir of Qatar and his regime are neck deep in this blood, even as they play at diplomacy, looking for opportunities to profit from the mess that they did so much to help create. Call me jingoistic, but my view is that the one unalterable rule of foreign relations should be that if you kill Americans, you never get another good night’s sleep. The gentlemen in Doha would, under any sensible policy, already understand that this is an existential crisis for them. 

But they do not think that it is that, because it isn’t, because these are muddleheaded times. The fact that U.S. forces are not on their way to Doha to drag these gilded villains out by their beards is difficult to understand. This isn’t a major world power we are talking about here—there are fewer Qatari nationals than there are residents of Lubbock County, Texas. Qatar is a splendidly air-conditioned, semi-jihadi shopping mall, and such consideration as it may have been entitled to evaporated when its guests started murdering Americans and kidnapping American toddlers. At the very least, the Qatari ambassador should be expelled rather than swanning around the Metropolitan Club in Washington. The Israeli government has awakened to the fact that Qatar is an enemy state; the United States, on the other hand, maintains an expansively cooperative security relationship with Qatar. “Since 2016, the U.S. has … authorized the permanent export of over $2.8 billion in defense articles to Qatar via the Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) process. The top categories of DCS to Qatar include: aircraft, special operations training, and fire control/night vision.” So reports the State Department

Out of necessity, Washington maintains some indecent relationships with Arab tyrants, for instance trying to court (often with catastrophic incompetence) Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud in the hopes of fortifying an alliance against Iran. Isolating Iran is a worthy goal, and the U.S. government can be expected to put up with a lot of Saudi-style grossness in the pursuit of that goal. But such cooperation has limits—limits that are well short of October 7. And Qatar is working the other side of that deal, in any case, in part because of its extensive business relationships with Iran and in part because Qatar resents its long history of domination by Saudi Arabia. That Qatar feels free to do this with impunity is another reminder that the world increasingly does not take the United States seriously—as a friend or as an enemy. 

And now Israel has to worry about what kind of friend the United States is prepared to be. 

Economics for English Majors

Why worry about the national debt? An answer in two words:

“F—k you.”

Donald Regan, Treasury secretary during the Reagan administration, made a great contribution to American letters, giving us the phrase “f—k-you money.” (He did not coin the phrase, but he contributed mightily to its popularization.) Regan had been CEO of Merrill Lynch for a decade before his service in the Reagan Cabinet, and he liked to boast that he could not be bullied or leaned on by anybody because, unlike most of his colleagues, he was fabulously wealthy. When Nancy Reagan interfered with the policymaking agenda, as she apparently did from time to time, some Reagan staffers and executives were cowed, but not Donald Regan. “I’ve got ‘f—k you’ money,” he said. “Anytime I want, I’m gone.” 

An immortal formulation, one for the ages. But this is the economics section, not the language section. 

The United States has f—k-you power, and Israel does not. That is a big part of what the main section above is about. But f—k-you power isn’t worth anything if you are not willing to say “F—k you” from time to time. The money works the same way: Think about how easy it has been to bully gazillionaires such as Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos into utter political and social conformity. Bezos has everything that money can buy, but there are other things he wants, too, such as having his girlfriend pose in Vogue. And you don’t buy Vogue coverage with money—you buy it with craven, abject conformism. 

But back to the power:  F—k-you power, like the f—k-you money that is a critical constituent of it, requires maintenance and investment. Power is a capital-intensive project. The U.S. government is currently spending a good deal more money—a total upward of $1 trillion a year—on interest on its debt than it spends on its warfighting capabilities. (The 2024 Defense Appropriations Act contains $832 billion in funding.) Another way of looking at the number is that our current interest expense—interest alone, right now, without a single new dollar in debt—amounts to nearly four times what we spend on the Air Force, our most expensive service branch. The vast majority of our new debt going forward into the foreseeable future is driven by Social Security and Medicare. If you aren’t talking about entitlement reform, you aren’t talking about anything. 

Our progressive friends have an irritating formulation of which they are very fond: “X is a not-X issue.” E.g.: “Trans rights are a climate-justice issue,” “Childcare subsidies are a national-security issue,” etc. Sen. Marco Rubio does a little bit of that, too, insisting that sugar subsidies are a national-security issue. (Why, yes, I have mentioned that once or twice before. I am not going to give up before Sen. Rubio does.) But just as there is a time for Nazi comparisons in politics—for instance, when you are faced with a violent political movement dedicated to the extermination of Jews—there is a time for that formulation, too. 

And as it turns out, entitlement reform is a national-security issue. Every $1 trillion in interest payments that goes out the door because of federal programs funding free false teeth is $1 trillion not spent on other priorities. It is possible to spend too much on the military; at times we have, and there is a not-indefensible argument that this is one of those times. But, as with allowing the energy industry to flourish in the free market, spending on military capabilities isn’t in the end a matter of having so many tanks and so many aircraft carriers—what we are buying with our defense dollars, when they are well spent, is options. Faced with a security challenge, Washington can choose between A, B, C, and D, whereas Brussels has to make do with C or D, while Delhi looks up longingly at D from way down in the alphabet. It is a long climb up to F from U.

We have challenges today. We will have new and different challenges tomorrow. And we are spending $1 trillion a year paying off benefits enjoyed mainly by relatively wealthy oldsters. Benefits that we didn’t have the rectitude either to fully fund 20 years ago or to cut down so that our obligations match what we are in reality willing to spend. I don’t know that we need 77 new aircraft carriers, but that’s about 77 new aircraft carriers—year after year after year—on interest payments alone.

And Canada Will Pay for It!

Headline: “Vivek Ramaswamy Wants to Build a Wall Between the U.S. and Canada.”

The plan is to make Latin American countries pay for it. That’ll be a hard sell. But Canada might volunteer.

Words About Words

As I might have predicted, I have been taken to task over my use of the phrase “factless factoid.” “Harrumph,” some correspondents snorted, “don’t you know that a factoid is factless by nature, that a factoid is a non-fact in the same way that a humanoid is a non-human? That’s why we don’t just call ’em facts!”

The first recorded use of factoid is in Norman Mailer’s Marilyn, his not-entirely-factual potted biography of the famous actress in which he insisted that the U.S. government had Monroe assassinated over a sexual entanglement with Robert F. Kennedy. (No, not that one, his father.) Mailer later explained that factoids are “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion in the Silent Majority.” Which is to say, in Mailer’s estimate, the factfulness or non-factfulness of a factoid is beside the point—it may be an invention, or it may be an irrelevant fact deployed for nefarious purposes. Factoid has come to be used to mean something between trivia and anecdote, a little nugget of information (possibly inaccurate!) that is supposed to bolster an argument or an opinion. Someone says, “There is too much money in our politics!” and someone else (in this case, me) answers with the factoid: “We spend 27 times as much on pornography in four years as we do on presidential elections.” The factoid is not dispositive, but it may be at times deployed as though it were. 

So, my usual love of prescriptivism and pedantry notwithstanding, I worry that if I write factoid to refer to something that is made up, people will be confused. Hence, “factless factoid.” If we take Mailer at his words that factoids may be facts or fiction, as needed, then “factless factoids” can be understood as a subset of the overall category. 

Department of History Started Yesterday

The GOP kept Mississippi this time. But Mississippi elected only one Republican governor in the 20th century and then reverted back to a Democrat. Depending on how you count it (Mississippi was staunchly behind Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party, the forerunner of the modern Democrats), Mississippi has elected about 46 Democratic governors; the current Republican streak is only three governors deep. Before that, you reach back to Kirk Fordice in the 1990s, and before that you reach back to Radical Republican Adelbert Ames, who became governor of Mississippi in 1874. 

Yes, Mississippi really could elect a Democratic governor. But it didn’t. 


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In Closing

“There never was a good war or a bad peace,” Benjamin Franklin wrote, and there is some truth in the maxim, but those words are rhetoric, not serious moral reasoning, something of which Franklin was only intermittently capable. There may not be good wars, but there are necessary wars, and we do not need to look very hard to find a bad peace, or an intolerable one. It was a bad peace that created the conditions that provided the impetus for the creation of the modern state of Israel in the first place; it wasn’t that the Jews of Europe wanted to be in Haifa—it was that they did not want to be in Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka, Auschwitz.

Do you know the name Emily Hand? You should. Her birthday was last week. If she is alive, as she is believed to be, she turned 9 while a prisoner of Hamas. Please let us not pretend that we do not know what that means. People are tearing down posters of the hostages. Please, let us not pretend that we do not know what that means. Let us not pretend to be surprised.

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.