Monday, September 25, 2006

The Limits of Empire II: The Assassination Policy

The discussion between James E-J and myself, which began in Nicholas Johnson, "The Limits of Empire," September 24, 2006, continues with James' suggestion that the U.S. adopt an overt policy of assassination of leaders of countries we dislike (rather than going to "war" with them).
James E-J said...

I think your points are fair ... let me put this on the table as a proposal. I won't defend it right now, but from a game theory perspective, I suspect it will work:

1. The US should adopt a policy of targeted assassination.

2. Democratically elected leaders(even when elected in a sham election arranged by an elite that controls government, such as Ahmadinejad's election arranged by the Ayatollahs) are not subject to assassination under this policy, though such elite may be subject to assassination.

3. Leaders who exercise control over a geographic area and are not elected (the Ayatollahs, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il, the Mullahs, etc.) are eligible for assassination.

4. The US will prioritize assassination targets that are a danger to foreign countries, support terror, impede democratization, impose fascism on domestic populations, engage in genocide or engage in any form of ethinic cleansing.

5. Successors to an assassinated leader will assume the same priority on the list as their predecessor absent clear and verifiable actions (not words) that establish a lower priority.

6. The US will make its assassination guidelines (but not a list of specific targets) public and publish its case against each person killed after their assassination.

I think if we established this kind of policy we would see more people like Libya's Muammar al-Gaddafi reduce their involvement in anti-liberal terror programs. The policy would be targeted very narrowly against those people who cause so much harm to humanity, and would provide strong incentives for those specific people to realign their behavior towards a more liberal course.

9/24/2006 02:38:28 PM

Nick responds:

There are a number of ways of approaching this proposal for a deliberate, albeit superficially "rational," policy of assassination.

1. At the outset, the choice between assassination and war somehow reminds me of my colleague, Tung Yin's, survey regarding whether, starving and put to the limited choice, people would rather eat a "rat burger" or an "insect burger." See Nicholas Johnson, "Professor Yin Says 'No' to Bug Burgers," September 16, 2006.

2. If you want to put this as a theoretical, hypothetical, philosophical choice between only two choices, and require me to make one of them, then, yes, I would prefer that the senseless slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians (the all too common consequence of most "wars") be avoided, even though it would require -- within the terms of this choice -- the deliberate assassination of someone.

3. But if you'll permit me the least bit of a moral civilization, I would, of course, not support assassinatiion -- and certainly not as a deliberate, overt policy. There is a reason why we call premeditated, deliberate killing of another "murder," and reserve for it our two most heavy penalties: life imprisonment and the death penalty. This is a moral judgment shared by religions and secular legal systems for at least hundreds of years.

4. For those reasons, I suspect there are many who would simply refuse to play this false game of choice, saying something like, "Murder is immoral as well as illegal; I simply refuse to make a choice between murder and war." As the lyrics to one of John Prine's songs put it, "Now Jesus don't like killin', No matter what the reasons for." (John Prine, "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore.")

5. First, let me say that (a) there are alternatives to violence. I won't launch into that lengthy essay here, except to say that "last resort" means last resort. (b) Every nation is entitled to protect its people once attacked. But virtually never should that justify unnecessary, "preemptive" wars (or assassinations) of choice. (c) Morality and international law aside, by what right does it fall to us to dictate to other peoples and countries who their leaders should be; which ones should be permitted to live and which should die? Where is the historical support for the assertion that things will be better after we've intervened?

6. Having said all that, I will now
take the challenge as the theoretical/philosophical issue it is intended to be and try to address it seriously.

7. There are some practical, administrative, problems with an overt policy of assassination as well as the moral objections.

(1) As Colin Powell has said recently of our torture policies, a benefit cost analysis of an assassination policy might very well reveal that what we lose in "moral high ground," with the allies and international cooperation it, and they, provide, would more than offset whatever we'd gain with an occasional assassination.

(2) It might very well be counter productive. As reports of the latest National Intelligence Estimate reveal, the war in Iraq has increased the number of terrorists, provided them a training ground, eased their task of recruiting, and spread their cells, like a cancer, throughout the world. See Nicholas Johnson, "Don't Like To Say 'I told you so, but . . .," September 24, 2006. Assassinations might very well contribute to the same kind of result.

(3) It's not clear it would "work." (a) The Administration claims to have captured or killed many terrorist leaders -- following which terrorists' attacks, and recruiting, have increased, not decreased. Although President Bush once said that taking Bin Laden, "dead or alive," was our primary goal, Bin Laden's isolation makes that one goal for which one can scarcely claim "Mission Accomplished." Recently there have been rumors that Bin Laden is dead. The point is, whatever the truth may be it hasn't made any difference -- especially with a metasticizing cancer of terrorist cells. (b) Any dictator who's been around a long time, once assassinated, will most likely be followed by a clone -- possibly even someone worse. (c) And, as noted, if you're dealing with the "leader" of an "organization" that is not hierarchial, that consists of semi-independent cells around the world, perfectly capable of coming up with their own devilment and destruction without direction -- a sort of human equivalent of the resiliency of the Internet -- the only consequence from the assassination of that "leader" will be to strengthen the terrorists' resolve and recruiting. (c) If the assassination policy extends well beyond "the leader" to others in the second and third levels (if a hierarchial organization) "assassination" soon evolves into something closer to "war."

(4) Even if it would work strategically it is very hard to pull off successfully tactically. (a) Our efforts to assassinate Castro read like a script for the keystone cops: poisoning his food, exploding cigars. Castro's continuing rule, extending through the terms of many U.S. presidents committed to his destruction, is perhaps the best pragmatic argument against a policy of assassination. (b) Even if you would be successful in killing somebody, the odds are good you will end up killing the wrong person, or persons.

(5) U.S. history is full of dramatic real life illustrations of one of the themes of George Orwell's book, 1984: Today's hated enemy can very quickly become tomorrow's trusted ally -- and the reverse. Bin Laden helped us fight the Russians in Afghanistan. Have you seen the pictures of our present Secretary of State with Saddam, our ally in our fight against Iran?

8. The policy is open to abuse. Today, critics of U.S. foreign policy charge that all too often we go to war on behalf of U.S. corporate interests -- or even for political motives, as depicted in the "fictional" movie "Wag the Dog." The presidential power to start wars without complying with the constitutional requirement of a congressional "declaration of war" is bad enough as it is. With the legalization of your "shoot first explain later" assassination policy there would be virtually no limit on this executive grasp of power from congress.

For example, ITT offered money to the CIA on more than one occasion to insure that Salvador Allende -- a democratically elected president of Chile -- would not be elected, or if elected, come to power in Chile and take over ITT's telephone company there. The CIA helped the company funnel the money to achieve its purposes, which some have charged included Allende's assassination. Whatever the facts may be, Allende was killed, and President Nixon was quite willing to act unilaterally according to a CIA report:

On 15 September President Nixon informed the DCI that an Allende regime in Chile would not be acceptable to the United States. He instructed the CIA to prevent Allende from coming to power or unseat him and authorized $10 million for this purpose. The President specifically directed that this action be carried out by the CIA without advising the Departments of State or Defense or the U.S. Ambassador in Chile."

CIA, "Subject: CIA Activities in Chile," September 18, 2000.

Can you imagine all the assassinations that might be requested these days by big oil and other major campaign contributors?

In conclusion, your choice, between war and assassination, reminds me of the conclusion the computer came to in the last scene in the movie "War Games." After trying various war scenarios against the Soviets, and a game of tic-tac-toe, it declares "the only winning move is not to play the game." Increasingly, that's where I come out.


Anonymous said...


I think your critique is entirely fair. And, I am glad to see that we agree that an assassination policy is generally preferable to all-out war. You highlight the disadvantages of my proposal well.

My problem is that the usual alternative to war is economic sanctions. While economic sanctions are less violent, what troubles me is that the civilian population seems to suffer far worse under sanctions than their unelected leaders. So, even though it is viewed as more "civilised" or "moral," the consequences are anything but civilized and moral. Children starve, the elderly die, and the regular people suffer undere sanctions while the ruling class continues on uninterrupted. In fact, sometimes such policies merely tighten the grip the ruling class has on the people.

I know the international community believes that sanctions are more moral, but I think the international community is wrong on this point. Sanctions take lives if only indirectly. I would prefer to intentionally take the lives of the people who appear the most culpable than to unintentionally kill the masses through povery, starvation and disease.

I am curious to know how you compare assissination with sanctions.

Anonymous said...

I guess moral outrage is as dead as a Do Do. I hope self interest is not because anyone can adopt a targeted assasination policy (I think it is called terrorism).

Nick said...

James: Assassinations vs. economic sanctions. (a) My assassination analysis would remain as in the blog above these comments. (b) Obviously if there were a way of altering leaders' behavior without harming innocent civilians I would always prefer that. And I agree sanctions often hurt the innocent. (c) But however painful, I suspect most civilians would prefer sanctions to war -- especially against the armed might of the U.S. -- Nick

Nick said...

John: Let's ask James -- Why is a policy of assassination not properly categorized as simply a sub-set of "terrorism"? -- Nick