A lesson in 'courageous restraint'

Many describe the clashes aboard the Mavi Marmara as a botched operation by the Israel Defense Force. Critics on the left say Israel should never have stopped the ships on their way to Gaza. Critics on the right say Israel should never have dropped soldiers one-by-one into a combat situation armed with paintball guns. In one respect, however, the navy commandos executed their mission with utmost precision and near-perfection.

This was a textbook example of what President Barack Obama would call "courageous restraint." The U.S. Navy Times revealed last month that American troops would now be eligible for a new medal recognizing them for outstanding conduct in "situations where they refrain from using lethal force, even at risk to themselves, in order to prevent possible harm to civilians." Rush Limbaugh jokingly called it the "Yellow Heart."

The very idea of the award is an insult to U.S. troops. It implies that they generally fight with utter disregard for civilian life, that they occupy themselves, as then-Senator Obama once said, with "air-raiding villages and killing civilians." Worse, courageous restraint a dangerous doctrine that will actually put more civilians at risk. Here, as elsewhere in the war against terror, Israel provides a lesson from which the U.S. should learn. 

The Israeli commandos carried light weapons but planned to negotiate. With both hands on the ropes they were descending, they made themselves vulnerable. As they were hit with bars, stabbed with knives, and thrown overboard, they shouted to each other not to shoot. They even radioed their commanders for permission to fire before doing so. They did their best to avoid killing so-called "civilians" who turned out to be combatants.

Several soldiers suffered serious wounds, including stabbings, gunshots, and broken bones. Finally, in self-defense, they shot and killed several of the people who had attacked them. Yet their "courageous restraint" saved hundreds more lives. If the Israeli navy had simply sunk the boat, or the Israeli commandos had opened fire as they landed, many more would have been killed. Theirs was a mission truly worthy of the "Yellow Heart." 

So why has the world condemned it--and why has the Obama administration refused to defend Israel? After all, the "courageous restraint" of the Israeli commandos conformed to the model President Obama wishes to set for American troops. The answer is quite obvious: Israel's "courageous restraint" created operational chaos and strategic failure, emboldening Israel's enemies, infuriating its allies, and inviting future confrontations.

That, in turn, means more civilians--real and pretend--will enter war zones, determined to  provoke Israeli forces and prepared to martyr themselves to weaken Israel's defenses against Iranian and Syrian weaponry. Thus a doctrine supposedly crafted with the goal of protecting civilians will do the opposite. It will also ensure Israel continues to lose the war for public opinion, since most people actually admire victory and detest weakness.

The world witnessed a war crime this week--not committed by Israel, but by the Gaza flotilla and its Turkish patrons. It is a war crime to transport civilians into a conflict zone, and to launch an attack in which they are likely to be harmed. "Courageous restraint" in the face of war crimes amounts to cowardice. That is why Israel is unlikely to repeat the experiment. The U.S. should draw the same lesson, and drop this dangerous doctrine.

Joel B. Pollak is a candidate for Congress in the Ninth District of Illinois.