In the conflict between Hamas and Israel the UK, US and (I think) European political classes wants to assert a narrative that Hamas are terrorists and their actions are simply and purely evil and unjustified in any way.
In the Ukraine crisis the line is the same; Russia’s military assault was “unprovoked and unjustified”.
The same line was offered when Al-Qaeda was active.
In each case the point is the same. The opposition is said to be mindlessly evil and aggressive. Their attacks are always completely “unprovoked and unjustified”.
The other side is not allowed political subjectivity and they are not allowed their own history. The “unprovoked and unjustified” line which is usually amplified and broadcast by the media (on Israel-Palestine there is some noticeable divergence though I have yet to see any robust questioning of Western leaders) absolves us from ever inquiring into the legitimacy of the grievances of the other side. Thus we never have to (by ‘we’ I mean Western elites) ask ourselves whether our actions are “right” or sensible, and whether or not we might have unnecessarily contributed – by action or inaction – to the grievances of the other side.
Of course we would expect leaders to sometimes produce distorted narratives for some tactical reason. (For example; the way that the UK and US produced a positive narrative about Stalin for domestic consumption to allow their populations to accept the military necessity of an alliance with the USSR against Hitler’s Germany in the 1940s). But the current trend of denying all political subjectivity to strategic opponents does not seem to be a tactic. Indeed it is clear that the leaders believe this themselves. Blinken really does believe that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was “unprovoked”. Rishi Sunak and Cleverly, the UK’s Foreign Secretary, really do believe that Hamas just popped up and murdered 900 Israelis out of some intrinsic evil. In this case the insistence on the use of the word “terrorism”, Cleverly’s refusal to share a platform with the Palestinian Ambassador to the UK and so on are part of stripping Hamas – not of “justification”, but of any political subjectivity at all. Very few were prepared to consider why Al-Qaeda committed the horrors they did.
In all of the three cases I cite there are valid (very valid perhaps) arguments about proportionality. But the official line is not that the actions of Russia, Hamas and Al-Qaeda have been disproportionate. To make that argument would be to accept that their is some merit to their claims and that their grievances have some justification. There could then be a discourse about limits.
In each case there are legitimate grievances. Al-Qaeda had (as far as I can work out) a religiously motivated grievance about the pollution of their sacred spaces and the dilution of their culture. (Perhaps this is the most criticisable in terms of disproportionality). Russia certainly has rational security concerns about NATO and militarisation right on their doorstep as well as non-fulfilment of the internationally mediated Minsk agreements. Those who take the Palestinian side in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict point to a peace process going nowhere, the dire conditions in Gaza under blockade from Israel and a history of “colonial” Israeli expansion into Palestinian lands.
I would suggest a priori that states and peoples (Hamas represents or partly represents a people who do not have a state but want one) do not simply up and commit acts of major violence and aggression with all the risks that that involves for no reason. The “unprovoked and unjustified” line that says they do is mystification.
Nothing in the above says either that the actions I am talking about are proportionate (or not) responses. Nor am I arguing that the West should not pursue its own strategic interests. (I am at least for now a realist in international affairs). But it seems to me that this tendency to blot out the history and reasons of the other side is not simply explainable as a strategic gambit – deliberate lies to extend our own power (like covering up our own atrocities for example). It seems to me that this refusal to grant any political subjectivity to the other side is closer to stupidity. It leads us into unnecessary conflicts. The problem seems to be an unwillingness to talk. Maybe after talking no compromise could be reached in any one case; but I cannot see, quite, the strategic benefit of not even trying.
As an illustration of this. This is a video of a State Department news conference. The journalist is careful to separate out the question of condemning Hamas. Even with this the spokesman cannot admit to any context. He refuses to answer and suppresses the question by moving on. The only answer offered is “Hamas does this because they hate Jews”. No context.