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The First Civilian Deaths in the Obama Administration; What do they Say About "Proportionality?"

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You know you're president when you lay your hand on the bible and take (and then actually re-take, the oath).

You know you're president when you dance at ten inaugural balls, and the song you've chosen is re-born as a kind of new national anthem.

You know you're president when that thing they call the "football" is never far away.

But you really know it when the first innocent people die on your watch.

On Friday, President Obama's administration approved the use of unmanned military drones in an attack on Taliban insurgents in Laghman Province, in the mountainous region between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The New York Times reports that "The outrage over civilian deaths swelled again over the weekend. Hundreds of angry villagers demonstrated here...after an American raid on a village in the province on Friday night. The raid killed at least 16 villagers, including 2 women and 3 children, according to a statement from President Hamid Karzai."

On his third full day in office, President Obama didn't back down from his campaign commitment to pursue the war in Afghanistan with unflagging intensity. Those critics who thought they were dealing with a Viet Nam-era dove who'd be reluctant to use force, have got another guess coming.

The President has been getting the same daily national security briefing as the former president ever since the election. He's had time to consult with his policy experts and make a decision about whether this was a course of action he wanted to continue, or not. Friday speaks for itself.

And it was the right thing to do. But was it "proportionate" -- using the buzzword of the moment?

The Taliban are gaining strength in Afghanistan, controlling ever-larger swaths of territory, and as the Times noted yesterday, terrorizing villagers with the same kind of fanatical brutality that they wielded when they ran the joint.

But they're not directly threatening American non-combatants. Our attack wasn't in self-defense; the Taliban isn't massed on our border. They'd not indiscriminately lobbing missiles, on a daily basis, into Los Angeles or Chicago or Dallas. But President Obama approved the unleashing of the drones, recognizing that there was a high probability civilians would be killed, including women and children.

There's analogue I'm obviously pursuing, and that analogue is the situation in Gaza. The Israelis are faced with similar decisions every day, given how inseparable Hamas has made itself from ordinary Gazans. So similar, in fact that, a U.S. military spokesman -- in explaining the situation on the ground -- could very well have been someone from the IDF:

"In a statement, Colonel O'Hara said "... the enemy placed the village in harm's way by operating the way they do." He "added that care had been taken not to use air power inside the village, to avoid civilian casualties. He dismissed the villagers' accounts that they had mistaken the soldiers for thieves. 'I am not buying that,' he said. 'These people were acting as sentries.'"

In Gaza as in Afghanistan, the lines between insurgents and civilians are intentionally blurred. In deciding to continue the Bush policies, President Obama implicitly recognized this: amoral guerrilla fighting puts civilians at risk.

Critics of Israel could argue equally well that President Obama displayed a lack of "proportionality": you shouldn't expose innocent people to death unless there's a clear and present danger to American troops. And the ferocity of the assault should be balanced by both the enemy's aggressiveness at that particular moment, and the risk to civilians.

But like the Israelis, President Obama recognizes that "proportionality" requires a longer term view. The score is not tallied up at the end of a given day. Action is taken for a variety of reasons - to eliminate a specific target, to send a message, to destroy supply lines. Any or all of them have civilian implications. Proportionality is a big-picture calculus.

Our raid on Friday killed Gul Pacha -- a Taliban leader who was nicknamed "Al Qaeda" by locals. But villagers "criticized the United States forces for killing his elderly father and two sons along with him, and for the shooting of other villagers."

It's a sad and complex business. Like the Israelis, we score a military victory but further alienate a population -- a population that is sometimes coerced into cooperation, but is often volitionally complicit as well. Yes, I think both the Israelis and the Palestinians are psychologically trapped in a vicious stand-off which is beyond the cure of combat. But the fury of the international judgment against Israel, and the unrestrained anti-Zionism, is itself not proportionate.

President Obama is a thoughtful and moral man who reads Reinhold Niebuhr. Based on the briefings he gets -- and believe me, he pushes back on every assumption unlike his predecessor -- he determined that the American action on Friday was within the contours of a proportionate response, and that the Taliban are the accountable parties.

Given that, perhaps the knee-jerk opponents of any Israeli self-defense, the self-appointed draftsmen of proportionality, will take a fresh look at when military action -- even at the risk of innocent life -- is a tragic but necessary outcome for which others hold the ultimate responsibility.