Assassination Is Not Good Foreign Policy

16 February 2001

By Stentor Danielson

Every time national attention turns to Iraq, we hear the same refrain: "We should have gotten rid of Saddam Hussein while we had the chance." George H.W. Bush, who was content during his time in office simply to liberate Kuwait, has since written that he should have pressed onward to Baghdad and dethroned Hussein.

Now, with the latest spate of action in the Persian Gulf region, talk of eliminating the Iraqi President has resurfaced. Unfortunately for all the would-be assassins, several executive orders -- most notably Order 12333, signed in 1976 by Gerald Ford Ė prohibit that course of action. Fordís order states: "No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States should engage in assassination or conspire to engage in assassination."

Quietly, Representative Bob Barr (R-Ga.) has introduced a bill -- H.R. 19, "Terrorist Elimination Act of 2001" -- that would reinstate the power of the government to order foreign troublemakers killed. This would follow up on the authorization earlier this month of $4 million in federal funding for the Iraqi National Congress, a coalition of anti-Hussein groups within Iraq.

It is a promising sign that Barrís bill has no co-sponsors and is gaining little attention from government leaders. The United States has no business ordering or endorsing assassinations.

We should get one thing straight up front: this is not a hypothetical power. The Terrorist Elimination Act is couched in generalized phrases like "potential threats." But legislation is driven by perceived need. So it is safe to assume that Barr and other supporters of the bill have certain leaders in mind as examples of the type of unsavory terrorists that they would like to eliminate. Iím willing to bet that Hussein is at the top of most lists. So we can look at the situation in Iraq as case study of why the United States should not sponsor assassination.

Our cultural mythmaking engines have done a superb job of fitting Hussein into the role of "U.S. archenemy." He is pure evil, we are told. He brutally oppresses his people (with the help of sanctions imposed by the United States). And he gets his jollies by provoking us, knowing that we donít have the guts to send a hit man after him.

However, not everyone agrees that Saddam is the epitome of evil as America presents him. Many Arabs (particularly Palestinians), for example, see him as something of a hero.

Other world leaders can be faulted for the same offenses for which Hussein is demonized. Israeli President Ariel Sharon, for example, is essentially forgiven by policymakers for his 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the deliberately provocative visit to the Temple Mount that sank Bill Clintonís dreams of a Nobel Peace Prize. He ran against former Prime Minister Ehud Barakís platform of peace, but as soon as his victory was confirmed, the United States committed itself to working with him. If our government is to begin eliminating unsavory leaders, it has its work cut out for it (and Iím sure many on the Left would suggest beginning at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue).

Ethical arguments aside (we shall return to those later), assassination is simply not an effective foreign policy strategy. Assassination simply removes one man. It does not change a corrupt and oppressive power structure.

Even the worst dictator is not a one-man operation. Others help to hold the reins of economic, political, media and military power. The death of one leader, no matter how charismatic, is rarely enough to completely topple his regime, and certainly not enough to ensure a transition to responsible democracy.

Letís say that Hussein is killed. Would the downtrodden people of Iraq flock to the polls to elect a leader only too happy to comply with the terms of the Gulf War cease-fire? Or would members of Husseinís Baíath Party step in to fill his seat (perhaps staging a mock election to legitimate the transition)? To break Husseinís regime we would need to assassinate every member of his ruling cartel.

The consequences when foul play is suspected would be great, and negative, as well. In Iraq, an assassination would only firm up Baíathís resolve to treat the United States as an enemy. If they have learned anything from Hussein, they will know that when America pushes they should push back harder. Killing Hussein will not cow them into submission.

Abroad, the reception will be unfavorable as well. Of the coalition assembled to expel Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, only the United States and Great Britain are still fighting Iraq. Last weekís air strikes were supported only by Canada and Israel. China (the nation with the greatest potential to become a true rival of the United States) is reported to have been secretly installing fiber-optic cable in Iraqi air defenses when the bombs it. Even Saudi Arabia, which considers Iraq its archenemy, condemned the recent use of force. America would be violating its own democratic ideals if it claimed to be a world leader while committing actions so repugnant to such a majority of other nations.

The United States likes to think of itself as a sort of moral leader in the world. But how moral is it to claim veto power over other nationsí leadership? Reinstating the power to order assassinations means that foreign nationsí sovereignty is compromised, by making the United States the final arbiter of whether a regime is worthy.

H.R. 19 makes an analogy to war -- if we can order a city bombed, why canít we pick off one person? In war, though casualties on the losing side are unavoidable, they are a side effect, which smart generals attempt to minimize. The goal is "reclaim this territory" or "stop this action." This is what separates war from genocide. But an assassinationís goal is simply the death of a person.

Looked at from this angle, H.R. 19 seems to be sponsoring the same kind of action that it claims to be opposing: terrorism.

What is the difference between a killing ordered by the United States and one ordered by Hussein himself, or Libya, or any other "rogue state" we could mention? Our motives would certainly seem just to those who issue the order. Osama bin Ladenís motives seem equally just to his agents targeting American lives. Yet few would suggest that he has a right to order assassinations.

Assassination circumvents the rule of law and due process, two principles held up domestically as examples of why the United States is a beacon of democracy and civilization to the world.

The difference between indicting Hussein for noncompliance with the UN and crimes against humanity on one hand, and assassinating him on the other, is the difference between the Hatfields pressing charges against the McCoys on one hand and loading their shotguns on the other.

Assassinating an uncooperative foreign leader is only good for assuaging the desire for a "quick fix" to foreign policy challenges. America can demonstrate maturity and leadership to the world by looking for solutions to the situation in Iraq that are more effective and do not sink us to his level of terrorism.

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