The Moral Case For Assasination As A Foreign Policy Tool

Assassination, as a foreign policy option, is supposed to be completely forbidden to America. That’s the theory, at least. But in our post-9/11 world, the once-unthinkable is now increasingly being seen as a viable option. The moral discussion of whether or not America should engage in assassination, though, hasn’t even really begun in any noticeable way. Which is a shame, because the country as a whole should consider what its leaders are doing in this respect. Especially while we’re bombing Tripoli, once again.

Assassination, as a concept, has been around pretty much as long as written records have existed. There are assassinations in the Old Testament of the Bible, and in the writings of Sun Tzu in China. In Rome, assassination was extremely common. Machiavelli mentions it favourably in The Prince. But defining what is (and what is not) actual assassination is harder than one might think.

The English word comes from the same root as the word “hashish.” From the etymology of “assassin,” traced by the Oxford English Dictionary:

Arab. hashshashin and hashishiyyin, lit. “a hashish-eater, one addicted to hashish,” both forms in Arabic being applied to the Ismaili sectarians, who used to intoxicate themselves with hashish or hemp, when preparing to dispatch some king or public man.

The first definition of the word in the O.E.D. reads as follows:

1. lit. A hashish-eater. Hist. Certain Moslem fanatics in the time of the Crusades, who were sent forth by their sheikh, the “Old Man of the Mountains,” to murder the Christian leaders.

This all comes from that well-known peripatetic Marco Polo, who described the sect following Hassan-i-Sabbah (the “Old Man of the Mountains”) as “Assassins.” Polo also passed on a legend about the group (which is mostly disbelieved today), which explained their fanatic loyalty to Sabbah. Candidates for becoming Assassins were drugged with hashish, and then while asleep were deposited in a beautiful garden. Upon awakening, the candidate would find himself surrounded by nubile young women and plants and fruits he had never seen before. He was told he had been allowed to temporarily visit “Paradise,” and was left to enjoy himself for a while. Drugged into sleep once again, the candidate was returned to face Sabbah, who informed him that he had now seen the Paradise which awaited all those who served Sabbah faithfully.

As a mythical recruiting tool, it’s a pretty good story, one has to admit. However, no trace of such gardens have ever been found at the stronghold fort that Sabbah used as the seat of his power, and no mention of such has been found in the writings from this stronghold, so one wonders whether Marco Polo was just reporting a tall tale told to him on his journeying. Even the story of Assassins getting high on hashish before their attacks is likely a myth as well.

But the Assassins themselves were far from mythical. They were a powerful force in the region for centuries, and the closest well-known concept today for how the Assassins were seen back then might be “Ninjas.” Assassins infiltrated the leadership of Sabbah’s enemies, and would kill the leaders rather than attacking any of the followers — often in mysterious ways in the dead of night, to further the mythos of the Assassins themselves.

Because they had pretty much trademarked the “cut off the head of the organisation” tactic in the eleventh to thirteenth century in what today is Iran and Syria, the name of their organisation became synonymous with their signature tactic. Hence the English word “assassin” and “assassination.”

In more modern times, assassinations have had enormous consequences on the world stage. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand precipitated World War I, which led to the deaths of over nine million people before it was over. In World War II, the United States specifically targeted the commander in chief of the Japanese Navy (the man who had planned the Pearl Harbor and Midway attacks), Marshal General Isoroku Yamamoto, and killed him by shooting his plane down. After the Church Committee revealed in the 1970s that the Central Intelligence Agency had tried to assassinate Fidel Castro numerous times, President Gerald Ford signed Executive Order 11905 which restrained the U.S. intelligence community in a number of ways, and included the specific ban: “No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.” Pretty cut and dried, one would think.

The question Ford’s order begs, though, is how exactly is “political assassination” defined, and what does it mean in the post-9/11 world? Was killing Yamamoto really an “assassination,” or was he a valid military target in the midst of a war? Exploding cigars for Castro was obviously over the line, but where exactly was that line drawn — especially in the context of international terrorism?

President Ronald Reagan decided that taking a pot shot at Libya’s Colonel Ghaddafi was acceptable, back in the 1980s. Ghaddafi’s residence was targeted, although he (quite obviously) was not killed in the attempt. Reagan targeted Ghaddafi for supporting terrorism in Europe which had targeted United States soldiers. Was this justifiable use of military force against an undeclared enemy, or was it flat-out an assassination attempt? Opinions differ.

Jumping forward to today’s world, I don’t think anyone would argue that (for instance) targeting Osama Bin Laden with a cruise missile wouldn’t be justifiable. It would indeed be an assassination (under a loose definition) of a single man by the United States military, but this man has already attacked us directly — even if he is not a political figure or head of state. My guess is that few tears would be shed in America if we were to take Bin Laden out in this fashion, and few people would even bring up the morality of assassinating individuals in the resulting discussion afterwards. In fact, we have tried to kill Bin Laden in such a fashion already, under President Bill Clinton.

If Clinton’s cruise missile had struck its target (reports are that we missed Bin Laden by only a matter of hours), would 9/11 ever have happened? Well, that sort of alternate future is impossible to predict with any accuracy. Perhaps Al Qaeda would have faded away, but there’s also a good chance that the “martyrdom” of Bin Laden would have spurred them on even more than a live Bin Laden could have.

Assassination is a tricky thing, precisely because of such unknowns. As military logic, it is almost as old as the concept of warfare itself — take out the leader, and the followers will have nothing left to fight for, and will put down their arms. Killing a rival to the throne on the battlefield, back in the Middle Ages, pretty much ended the war right there. Without a figurehead, there simply wasn’t much reason to continue fighting. In modern warfare, the higher the brass, the more valuable to the enemy’s military. Remember that not only were the Twin Towers attacked on 9/11, but also the Pentagon and either the White House or the Capitol (the intended targets of the fourth hijacked plane). Bin Laden, obviously, subscribes to the concept of taking out the leadership by force.

The lines begin to blur when civilians and political leaders are targeted, however. President Obama has authorised the targeting and killing of an American citizen, for instance, believed to currently be in Yemen. He is accused of fomenting Al Qaeda attacks against both American civilians and the American military, and has therefore been put on a “death list” by our president.

And then there’s Ghaddafi. The N.A.T.O. bombing of Ghaddafi’s compound this week in Tripoli was rationalized as an attack on Ghaddafi’s “command and control” facilities. This same thin veneer of plausible deniability was used by Reagan, back in the 1980s — even though it was plainly obvious what we were trying to accomplish.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that we dropped a bomb on Ghaddafi’s head tomorrow, it’s easy to see that the situation in Libya would change almost immediately. Ghaddafi is the one holding his backers together, mostly by force of personality. If he were to be taken out, the remains of his regime would have a tough time rallying their forces (perhaps under one of Ghaddafi’s sons). But, again, making such predictions is a tough thing to do, because it is almost impossible to say what would happen if a such vacuum of power were created in Libya right now.

Nobody’s going to admit, if such a bombing was successful, that Ghaddafi had been personally targeted. Diplomatic niceties would lead to statements from both America and N.A.T.O. that Ghaddafi just happened to be in a command-and-control centre when the bomb hit. Diplomatic fictions aside, however, it’s easy to see that some in N.A.T.O. are seriously considering this option. Just a few days ago, the main Ghaddafi compound was hit again, in what was obviously an attempt to get lucky. It’s not going to be too surprising if we take such pot shots in the future, either.

But what gets lost in the diplomatic fictions and plausible deniability (and all the rest of the hindquarters-covering euphemisms) really needs to be hauled out into the open for some serious discussion. Is America now comfortable with assassination as both a military and foreign policy option? We’ve deluded ourselves into thinking — since the mid-1970s — that we’re somehow “above” the assassination tactic. Every president since Ford has backed Executive Order 11905 — even while sweeping parts of it under the rug. It’s likely that the American government is never going to publicly admit assassination as a valid military tactic in the midst of wartime — it will always be explained away as part of the “fog of war,” and other such convenient excuses. Even if we do successfully target Ghaddafi in the coming days or weeks, not too many Americans are going to complain (especially if it leads to a drop in gasoline prices). And it is also likely that nobody in America is going to do anything but cheer if we successfully dropped a missile on Osama Bin Laden’s head one of these years. By his own words and actions, Bin Laden has proven to be an enemy of this country — meaning he is indeed seen as a valid military target to most people. The “American Taliban” guy in Yemen, however, raises more of a moral question. Does the American government — whether the president or the military — have the legal power to declare a United States citizen essentially “open game” anywhere in the world? Is America really comfortable with this concept?

Don’t get me wrong, here. I’m not arguing against assassination as a valid military and foreign policy tool. My personal feelings on the subject are mixed, at best. It’s easy to see the game-changing effect such assassinations might have on the world stage. What’s not so easy, however, is to accurately predict the blowback. Taking out Ghaddafi might indeed calm things down in the region — but then what would be stopping us from sending a team in to assassinate the leader of Syria next week (to pick just one example)? Walking down that road would lead us back to the 1950s, when the C.I.A. regularly attempted such things in the Middle East (which is how we got the Shah of Iran, which bred the Iranian revolution). It’s a vicious cycle, once started. And, to flip the coin, it would mean that we would be legitmising attacks against our leaders by our enemies, as well. Which might take the cycle all the way back to when the word was coined to describe a group who was attacking Crusaders (and others, to be fair).

Which is why I firmly believe that if America is going to choose to go down this road, it behooves us all to have a much more in-depth discussion on all sides of the issue — military, diplomatic, and moral. If we’re going to legitimise assassination as a valid American foreign policy tool, we really should do so with our eyes wide open.


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