Often simply naming something makes it easier to see and understand the next time. Take the argument that pressing crisis X demands some sort of immediate response is sufficient by itself to endorse reaction Y. This is plainly ridiculous. The ways that a stupid or thoughtless person can make a given crisis worse almost defy counting, at least compared with the relatively few honestly good ideas. Further, people never have every possible tool in their hands all the time. I see this all the time, yet I only understood why the tactic irritates me so much when I gave it a name. I find it useful to call the flawed construct we have to do something, ergo we should do X the kinetic fallacy.
Iraq and the 2001 terrorist attacks make a useful contrast. When terrorists attacked America it was fairly clear that both that the status quo was untenable. It was also clear that we had the tools to do something useful. Conversely Saddam’s Iraq failed both tests. Compared to where we are today the status quo seems perfectly tenable for any number of reasons. (1) We shake hands every day with regimes bloodier than Saddam. (2) Sanctions kept Iraq’s army in a crippled state that threatened almost nobody. (3) Iran predictably became the dominant mideast power when a Shiite government replaced Saddam. (4) Inspectors who concluded that Iraq had nothing like a WMD program proved accurate and Judith Miller hystericism proved fucking wrong. (5) Save for planted stories about a meeting in Prague nobody would think to link Iraq with al Qaeda.
Iraq failed the imminent threat test, but it also failed the means test. Even if Saddam constituted a crisis we had little in the way of useful tools to improve the situation. Some people thought that we did, but those people were incredibly stupid. Neocons thought that Iraqis would welcome Ahmad Chalabi as some sort of pro-America/pro-Israel Saddam 2.0. Donald Rumsfeld thought he could win the occupation with a special forces skeleton crew. Iraq might be the ultimate example of the kinetic fallacy at work since we neither had to act nor had the tools to act usefully.
Almost nothing brings out kinetic arguments today like fights involving Israel. Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic, for example, wrote a post today that distilled the flawed argument almost perfectly. He states the pressing need to act (emphasis mine).
No country in the world could afford to ignore such attacks. And no country would. An elected government, such as Israel’s, has a basic, overriding responsibility — to protect its citizens from the organized violence of their enemies. Of course, it can do this in part by negotiating with its enemies (assuming its enemies recognize Israel’s right to life) but its immediate mission must be to stop the violence, which is what Israel is now trying to do.
He makes the second point so clearly that Goldberg’s post might as well be the kinetic fallacy index case.
Whether it succeeds or not is an open question (It is Hamas’ indifference to Palestinian life, not Jewish life, that makes it a formidable foe, in the manner of Hezbollah) , but Israel must try to use all of the tools of national power to stop attacks on its citizens. Otherwise it is simply not a serious nation, one that does not deserve sovereignty.
Notice Goldberg’s vague reference to “all the tools of national power.” Israel has a military designed to handle the regular armies of the rest of the region, plus the unconditional support of America, so the country has a lot of tools. Israel has nuclear weapons. It could commit genocide. Goldberg’s ambiguous statement commits him to supporting essentially any response that Israel makes, no matter how extreme or counterproductive. Like many Americans Goldberg apparently thinks a friend of Israel must support every decision by Israel’s government (to be fair, Goldberg’s blanket support may only cover violence). In my home country of Pittsburgh we call people like that enablers. If Israel’s decisions come from short term political need rather than the country’s own long-term best interests, as Ezra Klein suggests is happening today, then supporters of Israel would best serve her interests best by pushing policy in a more productive direction.
In another post Ezra makes one of the more effective counters to kinetic arguments about Israel. The idea that Israel should always answer violence with violence is a pernicious mistake because it effectively puts any small group of radicals in charge of Israel’s foreign policy. The problem is even worse than that. Israeli counterattacks mostly hit civilians, and the more civilians that Israel kills the more support the violent radicals will enjoy among the Palestinian population. Israeli violence and draconian sanctions do little for Israel, nor do they benefit Palestinians general. However, such ugliness is oxygen and water for radical groups that attack Israel. Goldbergian kineticism puts Israel’s policy in charge of groups that have the perverse incentive of keeping Israel as violent as possible.
Do these particular attacks demand a reaction? Compared with the relentless barrages from Hezbollah the answer here is much less clear. Hamas sent relatively few rockets, several misfired and nobody was killed. Unlike Hezbollah, Hamas has almost no ability to aim. A proportional response would have used something more like a catapult. So no, there was no absolute need to react here.
Regarding whether Israel had to respond with violence, the answer again is no. Israel would save far more lives if it closed down the remaining settlements. Unfortunately that is not an option, and the reason is telling. The political pain for taking on thousands of Israel’s most violent extremists at once would strain any Israeli government, especially a weak leader like Ehud Olmert. As Israel’s most important friend it is America’s job to provide political cover, via unbearable pressure, for Israel to do things that it cannot do under its own power. It is a convenient bonus that doing so would not only serve Israel but also help restore America’s reputation as an honest international broker.