No sooner did the Israeli government begin its military operations against Hamas and Hezbollah than European politicians and diplomats, as well as NGOs, warned Israel to cease its actions lest there be collateral civilian damage. Jacques Chirac called Israel's actions "totally disproportionate." Multiple U.N. officials condemned the "horrific" destruction. On July 19, Louise Arbour, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, condemned as a war crime any bombardment of military targets that resulted in civilian casualties. On August 3, Human Rights Watch released a study concluding that the collateral damage wrought by Israeli bombing "cannot be dismissed as mere accidents and cannot be blamed on wrongful Hezbollah practices." It concluded that Israel had committed war crimes.
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 U.N. Human Rights Commission passed a resolution endorsing "all available means, including armed struggle," to establish a Palestinian 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; 4 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 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'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, terrorist "leaders remain extremely reluctant to pay for terror with their own lives." The same could be said of their sponsors.
The New Battlefield
The U.S. legal prohibition against assassination was not always absolute. Until President Gerald Ford issued Executive Order 11905, which declared that "no employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination," the question of the legality of assassination had been vague. True, the Lincoln administration had in 1863 instructed Union forces not to engage in assassination, but subsequent international agreements joined by the U.S. — the 1907 Hague Convention and the 1949 Geneva Conventions — danced around the matter.
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.
Iraq is an even more poignant example. The international community long knew of the danger Saddam Hussein posed: He started the Iran–Iraq War, used chemical weapons against Iraq's Kurdish population, and — on March 15, 1990 — executed a British journalist. On June 4, 1990, U.S. News & World Report labeled Saddam "the world's most dangerous man." Had Washington acted then, there would have been no need for the 1991 and 2003 military campaigns, with their attendant damage to the Iraqi infrastructure, nor would the U.N. Security Council have had reason to impose sanctions.
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.? 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-Qaeda 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: "What is less apparent is the profound cumulative effect of targeted killing on terrorist organizations. Constant elimination of their leaders leaves terrorist organizations in a state of confusion and disarray." 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.
The Law versus Terrorism
Many diplomats and activists will say assassination is, simply, illegal. But this is not quite true: Any individual, be he a guerrilla or a state official, who is involved in planning terrorist attacks is a combatant and, according to international law, a legitimate target. This is especially applicable in the case of Iran's current leadership. State Department reports regularly, and correctly, call Iran "the most active state sponsor of terrorism." U.S. counterterrorism authorities believe Brig. Gen. Ahmad Sharifi of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps helped plan the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, which killed 19 U.S. servicemen. In 1997, a German court found that, five years earlier, Khamenei and a coterie of senior Iranian officials ordered the murder of Iranian dissidents in a Berlin restaurant. As court documents in the 1998 case Stephen M. Flatow v. The Islamic Republic of Iran demonstrate, the leadership of the Islamic Republic was so bold in its support of terrorism that it even included a budgetary line item for terror support — which, in this case, was used to murder a 20-year-old American girl studying in Israel. The Pentagon should consider Revolutionary Guards commanders combatants, because of their role in smuggling weapons into Iraq for use against Coalition troops. No combatant should enjoy security from retribution simply because of where he resides. Every Iranian government-sanctioned "Death to America" rally, or military parade with banners draped over missiles declaring their target to be the United States, is a declaration of war by Khamenei, Revolutionary Guard Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against the United States, and should be treated as such.
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 — 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 9/11, 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, than by terrorist proxy. The U.N.'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 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.
©1994-2013 The Middle East Forum E-mail: info (at) meforum (dot) org Daniel J. Pipes