Assassin-Nation: Do the two go together?
Democracies that assassinate can get addicted to the tactic. Judicial process would be a good antidote.
I’m of the view Barack Obama is a “hard liberal” – in other words a Democrat who doesn’t shirk from military force. They may be reluctant, or seek to appease their party’s pacifist wing, but they take security seriously. Other Democrats in this fold: Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy.
This has been further confirmed by Obama’s decision to authorize the assassination of Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who helped put together the Detroit Christmas bombing attempt. It seems Al Awlaki is more than rabble-rousing, he’s actively hatching plots.
What is remarkable is that the assassination order has been okayed by Obama despite Al Awlaki being an American citizen. The legal argument: he’s Al Qaeda, he’s a legit military target and not a case of political assassination.
Off hand, I would have thought he needed to be at least indicted for treason, be sentenced to death in absentia, or something beforehand. In effect, a US president is passing a death sentence on one of his own citizens, no matter how wayward, without any clear judicial procedure.
I have had the odd stirring of doubt regarding the use of assassination by a liberal government. On the face of it, this makes little sense. Assassination is just another instrument of warfare. If anything, it is less messy and less likely to result in innocents being killed than the full-scale military action, even airstrikes or naval shelling. If nations can wage war, they can assassinate.
But that’s just the point. Democracies declare war through a carefully laid out constitutional or legal procedure. Assassination seems to short circuit that entire procedure by allowing a death warrant to be issued through non-transparent executive fiat. The US issues assassination orders against an American only after “special review” but clearly one that is not quite independent judicial oversight.
Israel is the world’s most extensive user of targeted assassination and has a particularly lethal success rate. The recent killing of the Hamas military commander, Mahmoud al Mabhouh, in Dubai may have resulted in lots of Mossad mugshots being splashed about, but it should not be forgotten the mission was successful. In Israel the degree of political control has receded even further. Mossad selects its targets and plots out the killing – and then goes to the political boss for authorization. Mind you, this is for non-Israelis. I don’t know if they’ve ever assassinated an Israeli.
Israel took up assassination after the Munich Olympic massacre. Some Israeli commentators have argued their country has become addicted to the use of targeted killing, whether by gun or airborne missile. However, it has not served any larger strategic goal merely a sense of primitive justice.
I wonder if the US is heading down the same path. Assassination by drone is now virtually the norm along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. This is partly about terrain and partly about the historic US squirmishness regarding its own casualties. However, in the case of both countries the use of assassination partly reflects a belief that regular warfare is either militarily or politically impossible in the target area. But it also results in the use of a state’s military capability being almost solely left to the discretion of a small section of the executive, almost bereft of judicial process.
Will India ever walk down that path? Assassination would be attractive. Because of the protection provided by Pakistan, India has almost no serious military options against the terrorists who attack it from overseas. The real obstruction lies elsewhere.
I once asked an Israeli official conversant in such matters what was ingredient that was most important to the establishment of an assassination policy. He responded, “Political will. If you ask a group of men to dedicate themselves to hunting down someone, they must know that an election or a shift in public opinion will not mean a loss of state backing.”
Each succeeding prime minister or new government must treat the death warrants issued by its predecessor as holy writ.
Somehow, I don’t see that being the case in India for some time to come.