AN ARROW IN OUR QUIVER:
Why the United States Government
Should Consider Assassination
By Dr. Michael Rubin
The violence of war seldom occurs on isolated battlefields. Whether in Lebanon, Iraq, the Congo, Kosovo or Bosnia, civilians often die when armies clash and air forces bomb. Complicating the matter is the tendency of human-rights groups to classify as a civilian everyone but formal, uniformed soldiers — a definition that leaves much to be desired.
Even as the human-rights community has condemned counterterrorist actions, it has endorsed measures that give terrorists a freer hand. On April 15, 2002, the UN Human Rights Commission passed a resolution endorsing "all available means, including armed struggle," to establish a Palestinian Arab state. While Canada, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States opposed the measure because it would grant suicide bombers legal cover, six European Union nations — Austria, Belgium, France, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden — endorsed it.
While the resolution focused on a single geographical area, the nature of legal precedent gave the ruling far greater reach — and the West needs to adapt to deal with the new moral standard it endorsed. If suicide bombers are allowed to kill innocents, we should be allowed to assassinate the leaders who deploy suicide bombers.
Standards of conduct, after all, change over time. The international community tolerated ethnic cleansing and population transfer between Greece and Turkey after World War I, and between India and Pakistan in the wake of their 1947 partition; but it no longer tolerates the forced transfer of millions of civilians, as the international reaction to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Sudan over the past 15 years demonstrates. Louise Arbour's statement — while baseless in law — reflects a similar shift: the growing international intolerance of wartime casualties. More than 30 million civilians died in World War II; four million died in the Korean War. But the quarter million deaths in Bosnia sparked international furor, and many organizations expressed outrage and voiced accusations of war crimes over the several thousand Iraqi civilians who, they said, perished in America's March, 2003, "shock and awe" bombing campaign. That Israel has become, in the words of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, "a savage war machine" because its operation has resulted in perhaps 1,000 casualties illustrates the new criterion of unacceptability.
For the most part, Western militaries have adjusted to the new constraints. As much as the political Left likes to condemn multibillion-dollar defense allocations and the growth of the military-industrial complex, that money is necessary not to develop technologies to kill more people, but ones to help avoid needless deaths. The mass and indiscriminate bombardment that once characterized war is a thing of the past. Western democracies could have continued to lob the equivalent of V-1 and V-2 rockets at a much lower cost, but chose not to do so. No longer do civilians, at least those living in a region in which Western armies operate, need to worry about indiscriminate shelling. Iraqis commented on the precision of U.S. bombing immediately after Saddam Hussein's fall; and newswires recently ran photographs showing Lebanese watching bombing from restaurants. While Hezbollah strongholds in the southern suburbs of Beirut have been hard hit, most of Beirut is unscathed. Accidents do occur, but they are the exception, not the rule.
Still, as the limit of permissible casualties continues to shrink, Western officials will be left with two options: First, they can choose not to respond to terrorist attacks. This would be both unlikely and unwise. Second, they can reconsider the efficacy of assassination. As military historian Michael Oren noted in a Washington Post commentary on July 14, 2006, terrorist "leaders remain extremely reluctant to pay for terror with their own lives." The same could be said of their sponsors.
During the first half of the Cold War, both Washington and Moscow engaged in assassination of foreign leaders, often through proxies. The Central Intelligence Agency targeted Asian, African, and Latin American leaders. In 1981, Pope John Paul II narrowly escaped death by a Turkish assassin's bullet in a plot that, according to East German Stasi files, the KGB ordered and assigned to the Bulgarian secret service. But, even while U.S. adversaries continued to encourage assassination, Washington sought to consolidate what many policymakers considered the moral high ground. On December 4, 1981, Ronald Reagan signed Executive Order 12333, which expanded the prohibition to include not just U.S. government employees, but also those "acting on behalf of the United States Government." The U.S. government could not farm out its dirty work to its allies. In the years since, antagonism to assassination has become such accepted dogma that, when U.S. officials learn of a pending assassination of a head of state, they automatically warn the target. Such an attitude prolonged the life of at least one Axis of Evil member — at a subsequent cost to American lives.
The prohibition on assassination has enabled foreign leaders to further their embrace of terror. In the early 1980s, Moammar Qaddafi personified rogue behavior. He thumbed his nose at international conventions, pursued weapons of mass destruction, worked to destabilize regimes throughout Africa, and offered aid and safe haven to a cornucopia of terrorist groups. In 1983, Reagan adviser Joseph Churba suggested reviving assassination as a tool of statecraft: He called on the U.S. government to remove Qaddafi through both "covert and overt means." If Libya did not adhere to international norms of behavior, he argued, then Tripoli "cannot be treated within the framework of the accepted norms of international comity." The CIA condemned Churba's remarks.
More than two decades later, discussion of assassination remains taboo. Even during open hostilities, U.S. military doctrine prohibits targeting an opposing political leader, unless, according to the U.S. Army's 1996 Operational Law Handbook, his death is "indispensable for securing the complete submission of the enemy." That assassination cannot even be discussed is unfortunate. In the three years after Churba's remarks, neither the Reagan administration nor the international community constrained Qaddafi's adventurism. On April 5, 1986, Libyan agents placed a bomb in a Berlin discotheque, killing two American servicemen. Reagan ordered Libyan targets to be bombed in retaliation, killing a number of Libyan troops and at least 15 civilians. Qaddafi continued to embrace terrorism. On January 31, 2001, a Scottish court found a Libyan agent guilty of downing Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988, killing 270. Had the Reagan administration assassinated Qaddafi in the early 1980s, they might well have saved the lives of those killed deliberately by Qaddafi, those murdered in terrorist attacks from Belfast to Baghdad by groups he sponsored, and those killed as collateral damage in the 1986 U.S. bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi.
Other examples abound. Bill Clinton might have spared the lives of at least 500 Serbian civilians if, in 1999, he had chosen to eliminate Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, rather than bomb his country into submission.
If a single bullet or bomb could forestall a far bloodier application of force, would it not be irresponsible to fail to consider that option, especially when the leaders of both Iran and North Korea threaten to use nuclear weapons and call for the destruction of both regional democracies and the U.S.A.? As Lebanon continues to burn, its Cedar Revolution in shambles and Iraq teeters on the edge of civil war, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad might be far less willing to facilitate the supply of Hezbollah and other terrorist proxies, if they knew that the cost of their actions might be their own lives.
The idea that governments cannot defeat terrorism by force may be a mantra among the foreign-policy elite, but it is not true. Widespread collateral damage to the civilian population might bolster terrorist recruitment, but so too do successful terrorist operations. Targeted assassination can disrupt this Catch-22. By targeting terrorists in Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration has already disrupted al-Qa'ida planning. The death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was another victory. Terrorists may replace assassinated leaders, but it takes time for successors to gain experience. Assassination disrupts operations in a fundamental way: Following a targeted assassination, surviving terrorists must reconsider the trust they place in their associates.
This was seen to great effect in Israel's targeted assassination campaign against Palestinian terrorists during the Second Intifada. In a Winter, 2003, Middle East Quarterly article, Israeli scholar Gal Luft analyzed Israel's experience. While acknowledging the persistence of terror, despite the targeted assassinations, he observed:
Those who fill the smoldering shoes of the former leader know their life expectancy will be short, unless they make an abrupt adjustment in their policy.
Israel's targeting of terrorist operatives and ideologues did, in fact, stop the violence; it was Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to disengage from Gaza that reignited it. Palestinians interpreted the Israeli withdrawal as evidence that they could maximize their gains through violence, rather than peaceful diplomacy.
Those who view terrorism as a judicial, rather than a military, matter may raise issues of due process. But terror sponsors and rogue regimes do not abide by any such process. And, with Executive Order 12036, U.S. President Jimmy Carter mandated congressional oversight of covert activities, so elected U.S. representatives can ensure that assassination is not conducted lightly, but only as a last resort.
There remains a gut-level revulsion to assassination, but this afflicts the foreign-policy elite more than ordinary Americans. In the aftermath of the Islamist terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, more than half of Americans surveyed in a Newsweek poll thought that the U.S. military or intelligence agencies should be granted the power to assassinate terrorist leaders, not only in the Middle East and Africa, but in Europe as well. As modern communications networks send pictures of dead and maimed civilians across the world in seconds, revulsion is relative.
Some commentators resort to the argument that assassination would lower Washington to the standards of a rogue regime, but such moral equivalency falls flat. The aim, after all, of any Washington-sanctioned assassination would be not to terrorize, but to obviate the need for a more destructive military campaign against an adversary. By giving the President an additional policy tool he might use before inaugurating a military campaign, assassination might even prevent war.
A more serious concern would be that of tit-for-tat violence. Just as President Bush's critics argued that the preemption policies of his first National Security Strategy might open a Pandora's Box of countries seeking to attack their enemies, so, too, might a White House decision to engage in assassination enable other countries to justify similar actions. But many countries actually already do sanction assassination — if not formally, then by terrorist proxy. The UN's Brammertz Commission will likely conclude that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ordered the assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafiq Hariri. Further dampening the prospect for tit-for-tat violence is the fact that, unlike in Cold War days, a president could not sanction assassination for simple geopolitical gain. Vladimir Putin and Jacques Chirac can be as obstructionist or obnoxious as they wish and face nothing more lethal than Vice President Cheney's criticism — but if a foreign commander-in-chief or his immediate agents threatened the U.S. homeland, they would receive no such immunity.
As diplomats and international jurists condemn military strikes and label any civilian casualties as violations of international law, they constrain conventional response. This may be their intention, but it is the duty of elected U.S. officials to protect the security of the United States of America and the life and liberty of its citizenry. If the White House aims to defend the nation against terrorism, and avoid the expense, damage, and trauma of war, it is time to revoke the ban on assassinating our enemies.
Islamism & Jihadism -- The Threat of Radical Islam
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Middle East -- Arabs, Arab States,
& Their Middle Eastern Neighbors
Israel --The Israeli-Arab Conflict
The Middle East -- Lebanon as a Geopolitical Problem
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The Problem of Rogue States:
Iraq as a Case History
National Strategy for Victory in Iraq
The Middle East & the Problem of Iran
Islamist Terrorist Attacks on the U.S.A.
Osama bin Laden & the Islamist Declaration of War
Against the U.S.A. & Western Civilization
Islamist International Terrorism &
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Counterterrorism & U.S. National Security
U.S. National Security Strategy
Dr. Michael Rubin, a Ph.D. in History (Yale University) and a specialist in Middle Eastern politics, Islamic culture and Islamist ideology, is Editor of the Middle East Quarterly and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. Dr Rubin is author of Into the Shadows: Radical Vigilantes in Khatami's Iran (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001) and is co-author, with Dr. Patrick Clawson, of Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). Dr. Rubin served as political advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad (2003-2004); staff advisor on Iran and Iraq in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense (2002-2004); visiting lecturer in the Departments of History and International Relations at Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2001-2002); visiting lecturer at the Universities of Sulaymani, Salahuddin, and Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan (2000-2001); Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (1999-2000); and visiting lecturer in the Department of History at Yale University (1999-2000). He has been a fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, the Leonard Davis Institute at Hebrew University, and the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs.
The foregoing article by Dr. Rubin was originally published in National Review, August 28, 2006, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum.
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