Thursday, June 16, 2005

Assassination Military Policy

President Bush recently announced that U.S. military policy will focus on assassinating foreign enemy leaders. He didn't quite put it that way, of course. Politicians seldom frankly admit that they aim to kill each other. But a fair reading of Bush's May 27 commencement address at the U.S. Naval Academy indicates that he regards assassination as a legitimate and useful military policy.

In his commencement address, Bush described some recent and projected advances in U.S. military technology, placing particular emphasis on the growing precision with which it can apply lethal force. Moving from tactics to strategy, Bush added,

Technology changes the balance of war in another important way: We can now strike our enemies with greater effectiveness, at greater range, with fewer civilian casualties. In this new era of warfare, we can target a regime, not a nation, and that means terrorists and tyrants can no longer feel safe hiding behind innocent life. In the 21st century, we can target the guilty and protect the innocent, and that makes it easier to keep the peace.

To "target a regime" does not, of course, mean to blow up its flags and filing cabinets. It means to "kill enemy leaders." And to judge from the smart bombs lobbed (albeit ineffectually) at Saddam Hussein and his sons, Bush means what he (almost) says.

I do not point out Bush's embrace of assassination as a military policy to criticize him. To the contrary, I think the policy reveals wisdom, courage, and a sense of justice.

It reveals wisdom because it recognizes that disincentives matter. Most politicians, to say nothing of tyrants such as Saddam, care far more about their own deaths than the deaths of their soldiers and citizens. The U.S. military can now credibly threaten to assassinate foreign enemy leaders. Bush's announced policy puts that useful tool to work.

Bush's embrace of assassination military policy reveals courage, too, because it invites in-kind reprisal. Given the overwhelming advantages possessed by the U.S. military, granted, Bush faces far less of a threat from foreign enemy leaders than he can pose to them. Still, Bush has in some measure put his own life on the line.

He has done so for the right reasons, however. Bush's assassination military policy stands reduce the salient injustice of warfare. As Bush said, "we can target the guilty and protect the innocent. . . ." I'll add that Bush's assassination military policy also tends to spare less-than-perfectly-innocent parties such as soldiers acting under orders, instead focusing on their undoubtedly guilty superiors.

I am of course not condoning all of Bush's military or foreign policies. I think, however, that Bush merits praise both for targeting foreign enemy leaders and for admitting (if in less direct language than I've used) that he has adopted an assassination military policy.


Gil said...

I agree completely.

What's the legal status of such a policy? Aren't there some treaties or laws that forbid assassination?

(btw, I think you've repeated the final paragraph)

Caliban said...

Definitely. It's pretty obvious who wrote the rules of warfare when it's a crime to kill the leaders (who started the war) and okay to kill the soldiers who didn't.

Plus it sends a good message to the 'enemy' civilians. And if the enemy gets angry and decides to assassinate our leaders, no loss! ;)

Tom W. Bell said...

Thanks, Gil; I've fixed that typo. As for your interesting inquiry, see, which traces many subtleties to conclude that while the Hague Convention does appear to outlaw assassination, "there are circumstances wherein the expectations of the authoritative human rights regime must override the ordinary prohibitions against transnational assassination . . . ."

I'd add, appropo your comments, Caliban, that Bush undoubtedly has international public opinion in mind--and rightly so. Query, though, what would happen if, as was the case with Hitler, the subjects of a foreign enemy largely support him. I think the Bush policy would still prove better than, say, firebombing civilian populations. But it would hardly leave the "saved" peoples happy.

Caliban said...

Yeah, the "popular tyrant" is definitely an issue, especially if suspect that killing him will create a martyr.

Even in the Hitler scenario, you have a 3rd option -- support the coup in his own government that attempted to kill him on a few occasions. Unfortunately, we didn't do a really good job of helping them out. The other thing is, lots of leaders have subordinates who would step into their position. I suppose we'd have to assassinate them too.

No matter how much work/difficulty it is to kill leaders, it all seems much better than the firebombing you mentioned.

Ben said...

I think most people would agree that killing warmongering leaders is preferable to sending soldiers to battle. Unfortunately these leaders tend to put innocent indoctrinated troops between the enemy and themselves.

Jon Goff said...

Another interesting option that would do the same thing (ie holding regime leaders responsible without risking innocent or semi-innocent second or third parties) was suggested during the runup to the war: duels. It got poo-poohed by Bush at the time. After all, it wasn't about Saddam, it was about those WMDs you see. ;-)

That said, I think a duel like the one suggested between Saddam and Bush (or possibly a 3 on 3 or 5 on 5 to get some of the really nasty members of the regime on the list too) would have been far more just than the current invasion, and would have shown a lot more courage than "my army can blow you up" assasination warfare.


Caliban said...

See, Jon, now you're thinking! I'd vote for even more people! How about 400 of our governmental leaders against theirs? We could even throw in our current governor of California to give us a fighting chance!

I'd recommend that they must all fight with handgrenades as their only weapon. No matter which side wins, the people of both countries come out better!

Anton said...

Perhaps the problem of willing successors is why the phrase target a regime was chosen. What counts is to destroy the throne, not its occupant.

peterquixote said...

with targets in mind, is there any good evidence that bin laden is still alive

Anonymous said...

We targeted the Taliban and the Saddam regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq - not the Afghan or Iraqi nations as a whole. By focusing on the elements of the regime that give it its strength, we can take it down without inflicting massive damage to the civilian population and infrastructure (the nation) as a whole.

Targeting the leadership during wartime is an accepted practice of trying to win the conflict. Assassinating a leader without a declaration of war is what goes over the line. I believe Bush was describing the former, not the latter.

peterquixote said...

we gotta tyrant in NZ his name Winston .. NZ last