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Assassination as a Tool of Foreign Policy:

Pat Robertson's recent suggestion — now recanted — that the U.S. government assassinate Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez led me to think a bit more about this subject. Let me pass along some tentative thoughts (especially tentative as to point 2 below), and see what the rest of you think.

1. Morality: Government-sponsored assassination is essentially an act of war; it's an attempt to affect another nation's government policy by military force. Nonetheless, if an invasion is morally justified, it seems to me that an assassination is if anything more so. It would be an odd morality that allowed the killing of enemy soldiers, many of whom are personally morally innocent, but forbade the killing of their commander-in-chief — or even ostensibly civilian leaders of the enemy government — who may be morally culpable indeed.

Idi Amin was ultimately driven from power by a Tanzanian invasion (which was prompted by a Ugandan invasion of Tanzania, but would have been eminently justified even without that). If the Tanzanians or others could have stopped Amin's murders by assassinating Amin, and without killing any Ugandan soldiers, that would have been even better.

The same goes for many other tyrants, though naturally not for every leader you dislike: Just as invasions are unjustified in most certain circumstances, so are assassinations (especially of democratic leaders, where the people's self-government as well as the leader's right to live are implicated). My point is simply that assassinations are no morally worse than other acts of war, and likely morally better than many such acts.

(I don't know enough about Hugo Chavez to express a view on which category he falls into; I mentioned Chavez only because Robertson's remarks prompted me to post this, not because I have any views about him. I also set aside for purposes of this post questions about whether and when such assassinations violate either domestic law or international law; the "morality" inquiry is about whether they're inherently wrong, not just about whether they violate the legal rules, since presumably we can change any executive orders of statutes, or withdraw from any treaties, that we think are too constraining. For a couple of past posts about one corner of the legal question, see here and here.)

[UPDATE: For whatever it's worth, George Stephanopoulos seems to take this view, too, in a Dec. 1, 1997 Newsweek article urging the assassination of Saddam Hussein.]

2. Practicality: The chief problems with assassination, it seems to me, are practical ones. First, assassination will only do so much — it will remove one person, but it may see him replaced with someone who is equally bad, or it may lead to a bloody fight for succession, which may yield more deaths of innocents than the tyrant was responsible for. Especially if the assassination is done for humanitarian reasons (which may sound odd, but as the Amin hypothetical shows, would be eminently plausible), a humanitarian would want to make sure that the act will really do more good than harm. In many (though not all) situations, an invasion is a much surer way of accomplishing your goals than an assassination would be.

Second, democracies have much more to lose from an increase in the number of foreign policy assassinations than do tyrannies. As best I can tell, foreign policy assassinations are quite rare, even among countries that are quite hostile to each other, to the point of war or near war.

This condition — perhaps a tacit understanding — is very good for democracies. Civilian leaders in democratic governments, including ones who have a great deal of power, are generally soft targets except at the very highest levels (e.g., President or Vice President): They are often seen in public, and they generally live as the people do. That's good; we want our political leaders to meet with ordinary citizens, and to live like ordinary citizens. In autocratic governments, power is generally much more centralized, and the few who have power can much more easily live in bunkers, and always be under heavy guard.

If a spate of foreign policy assassinations leads more countries (and nongovernmental groups) to adopt this tactic, tyrants could protect themselves to a considerable extent, with little effect on their ability to govern. What's more, they probably won't be much deterred by the risk of assassination, unless we can make the risk very high: They knew the job was very dangerous when they took it, and they are likely the sorts of people who can live quite well with this sort of risk.

On the other hand, politicians in democratic countries could protect themselves only through steps that would substantially change, and change for the worse, the way our democracies function. Also, quite a few democratic politicians might conclude that the job isn't worth the risk. Naturally, there will always be some who are willing to take the risk; but I'm not sure that we want that sort of self-selection effect, in which political positions are increasingly taken only by people who want them so much that they're willing to ignore mortal danger to get them.

Of course, this all presupposes that our attempts at assassinating others will lead others to assasinate us; and this may be a mistaken presupposition, because I suspect that most of our enemies and potential enemies aren't exactly animated by a sense of fair play here. Yet the fact is that, despite the softness of many of our targets (again, not the President or Vice President but many other important leaders), our enemies — even in past shooting wars — have not generally gone after them. Likely this was often because they feared retaliation on our part. But I suspect that there was a bit of a tacit deal involved there, and if I'm right, then some violations of the deal could lead the whole deal to break down. (And, yes, I know that there have been violations of the deal already; but sometimes such deals survive a few breaches, but fall apart once a tipping point is reached.)

This having been said, there will of course be exceptions. Hitler was an unusual enough figure even within Germany, and the worth of killing him was so great, that assassinating him would have been very much worthwhile (though also very hard, as many would-be German assassins learned). When we're fighting a broader war, the killing of high military and quasi-military officers may be necessary, and might not materially increase the risk of retaliation beyond what it would be in any case. Still, it seems to me that if you look at the big picture, the seemingly cheap step of assassination ("just take him out") may generally be much more expensive than it appears.

In any case, these are just some tentative thoughts — I'm most surely no expert on the question — and I'd love to hear what others think.

UPDATE: I use the term "assassinate" because I don't want to sugarcoat what would be happening — the deliberate killing of a particular person. But if you think that "assassinate" inherently carries a connotation of improper deliberate killing, just mentally replace the use of "assassinate" in my post with "targeted killing."

Dictionary definitions of the term in fact reflect this ambiguity in the term. Some define it using the term "murder," which generally means kill immorally or illegally; others define it using the term "kill," which doesn't carry that meaning. I generally lean towards the latter category: A deliberate attempt to kill Hitler would in my view be commonly called "assassination," though it would of course be morally praiseworthy. And I think that this is a common enough use of the term that saying "targeted killing" instead would make it sound like I was pussyfooting around the subject. But, again, if you think that assassination definitionally can't be permissible, just use the term targeted killing instead.

FURTHER UPDATE: Professor Bainbridge has a Catholic perspective on the issue.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. The Stephanopoulus Option.--
  2. Assassination as a Tool of Foreign Policy:
unhyphenatedconservative (mail):
Although I think that Robertson was daft to suggest the assassination here - Are we even contemplating thinking about invading Venezuela? - his basic point stands. If an assassination can accomplish the same goal as invasion, or even targeted missile strikes that might still incur civilian casualities, then the assassination is the more moral option.
8.25.2005 7:20pm
Paul Gowder (mail):
A few remarks.


Of course, this all presupposes that our attempts at assassinating others will lead others to assasinate us; and this may be a mistaken presupposition, because I suspect that most of our enemies and potential enemies aren't exactly animated by a sense of fair play here.


Not necessary. The propaganda value of a hit attempt with the dictator's own people would make it easier for them to carry off hits, terrorist attacks, etc. regardless of their personal ethical choices. Also, it would make the retaliatory hit less subject to international condemnation, trade sanctions, etc. Those are all independent of the leader's personal morality.

Beyond that, however, I think you're right about the basic moral issue. My little Kantian soul recoils from the idea of doing hits, but my little Kantian soul also recoils from the idea of starting wars, and if we presuppose that removal of a dictator is necessary one way or another (a presupposition that I'd reject in many cases), it doesn't seem ethical to start a war when less murderous choices are available.
8.25.2005 7:30pm
DJ (mail):
As to point 1: Putting the realities of war aside, I'm not aware that its inherent purpose is to deliberately kill any person. Wars may indeed take place without a shot being fired--it simply requires the threat of force by one country against another and the capitulation of the second country to the political demands of the first.

Assassination, on the other hand, necessarily involves the intentional killing of another person. Such a killing almost always appears justified ex ante: it doesn't take a strict utilitarian to acknowledge that taking out Hitler and Mussolini in 1935 would have been far better than waiting for 10 years. But how to know that the gathering storm in 1935 would make assassination so logical?
8.25.2005 7:31pm
unhyphenatedconservative (mail):
DJ,
1. Your description of threats followed by capitualtion does not describe "war."

war Audio pronunciation of "war" ( P ) Pronunciation Key (wôr)
n. 1.
1. A state of open, armed, often prolonged conflict carried on between nations, states, or parties.
2. The period of such conflict
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.

2. In the case of Hitler, reading Mein Kampf would have been a bit of a hint for the gathering storm
8.25.2005 7:50pm
sir mix a lot:
the problem with assassination is that it returns us to the personalized form of warfare of the middle ages, which early modern developments in internation law and political theory about the nature of the state overcame. that is, wars used to be fought between sovereigns who were indentified personally with the states (as in Shakespeare, when kings refer to each other as "my cousin England" and "my cousin France") and ofter over personal or dynastic motives, as in the belief that a sovereign should control certain land because his claim of inheritence was supperior to others' (e.g., the Hundred Years War). since then, however, we have viewed states as having a separate legal, moral, and political identity from their rules (whether democratically elected or not). in fact that separation was crucial to the development of the development of international laws generally, the laws of war specficially, and, crucially, to democracy itself, in the sense that the rulers can change but the state remains. personalizing war would be a retreat from those values and laws. we're probably way down that road, tho', since news coverage inevitably personalizes it (Bush vs. Saddam), as does rhetoric ("we have nothing agains the Iraqi people, but only against Saddam.")
8.25.2005 7:52pm
SteveMG (mail):
Perhaps we need to be more specific as to who exactly will be assassinated and under what, if any, conditions.

I assume we're talking about foreign leaders - either democratically-elected ones or those attaining power throught the barrel of a gun - and not various leaders of terrorist or guerilla armies?

Second, I assume as well that we're talking about non-war situations? That is, countries that we're not at war with? Presumably, if the US and Venezuela are at war, then it would be acceptable to assassinate Chavez? We can consider, for example, the ambush of Yamamoto during WWII.
8.25.2005 7:56pm
Jeff V.:
You are forgetting an important point.

Assassination, like terrorism, is a tool that can be used by weak states (or weak non-state actors, like terrorists) against strong states. The U.S.'s refusal to assassinate world leaders (or at least, its heavy reluctance to do so) serves to reinforce the norm against assassination that ultimately protects U.S. Presidents.

(Insert speculations that Kennedy's assassination was payback for his earlier assassination plots against Castro here)

As a policy tool, assassination has dubious value; often the leader that takes the place of his fallen predecessor has unexpected traits that are as bad or worse than those of the first leader. Also assassination destabalizes the whole country that it is applied to; since most leaders that the U.S. would target aren't models of stability in the first place (Iraq, North Korea), stirring the pot often isn't such a great idea. Assassination also wrecks havoc on international opinion: imagine what would happen if Chavez were to be killed next week; all of Latin America would instantly hate us. Say goodbye to the FTAA, CAFTA, harmonious relations with Peurto Rico, etc. Also, Venezuala would be pushed even further into the orbit of Cuba, as would several fence-sitting Latin American countries. Other assassination scenarios present similar problems.

Given assassination's limited value, the U.S. should remember that it has much more to lose from a Presidential assassination than it could probably gain by knocking off some third-world czar. No one here is old enough to remember the fear that the Kennedy assisnation engendered among average people; it was a shocking reminder that even our most secure citizen could be reached by our enemies (or by a lone crazy guy, if you prefer). That shock is like nothing that the country really faced ... untill 9/11. Would we really want to bring upon us another 9/11-szie disruption of our economy and political life merely to knock out a guy like Chavez? I seriously doubt it.
8.25.2005 7:58pm
Anomolous:
Along a similar vein, Assassination Politics...


Imagine for a moment that as ordinary citizens were watching the evening news, they see an act by a government employee or officeholder that they feel violates their rights, abuses the public's trust, or misuses the powers that they feel should be limited. A person whose actions are so abusive or improper that the citizenry shouldn't have to tolerate it.

What if they could go to their computers, type in the miscreant's name, and select a dollar amount: The amount they, themselves, would be willing to pay to anyone who "predicts" that officeholder's death. That donation would be sent, encrypted and anonymously, to a central registry organization, and be totaled, with the total amount available within seconds to any interested individual. If only 0.1% of the population, or one person in a thousand, was willing to pay $1 to see some slimeball dead, that would be, in effect, a $250,000 bounty on his head.
8.25.2005 8:01pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Another problem with assassination as an alternative to war is that it may be too easy. Nations have a strong incentive to resolve differences peacefully when war is the alternative. For the very reasons that assassination seems attractive, it also threatens to crowd out peaceful solutions. (Chirac won't go along with the Iraq War? BANG! Bush won't sign Kyoto? BANG! Etc.)

But the main problem is already recognized: removing the top of the Xmas tree doesn't change the tree much, except in unusual cases. Even assassinating Hitler might have only replaced him with Himmler or Goering. Plus there's the great danger that the assassinating state will be exposed, thus risking direct retaliation at worst and massive ill-will from the target state (and 3d-party states) at best.

Finally, war requires the approval of the Congress (in theory, anyway). What is the democratic check on assassination? Why would we accord so much unchecked power to the executive, particularly when, as I've noted, assassination can easily lead to war or other retaliation.

There's a reason this genie's been mostly left in the bottle, I think.
8.25.2005 8:06pm
unhyphenatedconservative (mail):
Jeff V,
While protecting U.S. Presidents is laudable, if an assassination could achieve the same aim as a war without risking the lives of U.S. troops, the Commander in Chief should care enough about the troops to brave increased risk of assassination.
8.25.2005 8:08pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Anomolous's quote helps illustrate my pragmatic point. If political assassinations become common -- and remember that officials whose views you like will likely be assassinated no less often than officials whose views you dislike -- who will end up governing the country? Why, those people whose desire for power is so great that they're willing to brave the risk of death.

How will they govern the country? From inside bunkers, with a minimum of contact with the citizenry.

Who will be easier to assassinate: an incumbent whom some group disagrees with, or a challenger who the group anticipates will act in an "abusive or improper" way?

Is this situation likely to be much of an improvement over the current one?
8.25.2005 8:13pm
Gordon (mail):
Anomolous: Your scenario sounds like it belongs in a dystopian science fiction movie.
8.25.2005 8:16pm
Glenn Bridgman (mail):
It isn't so much about the cost/benefit of a single assasination, but rather about maintaining an atmosphere in which assasination is considered an unacceptable way of conducting foreign policy. Even if it makes sense in the short term, it destabilizes the entire world and tends to lead to retaliations and then things start to spiral out of control. Consider how world war I started. Utilizing assasionation as a way to avoid committing conventional forces is penny wise, pound foolish, especially given the US's huge comparative advantage in military force.
8.25.2005 8:35pm
Byomtov (mail):
Second, I assume as well that we're talking about non-war situations? That is, countries that we're not at war with? Presumably, if the US and Venezuela are at war, then it would be acceptable to assassinate Chavez? We can consider, for example, the ambush of Yamamoto during WWII.

Yamamoto was in fact a uniformed member of Japan's navy, and thus clearly a legitimate target. I don't know if civilian leaders are legitimate targets in wartime or not.
8.25.2005 8:36pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Well, if civilians-in-general are not military targets, then the civilians in charge of the government wouldn't automatically become targets, you'd think.

Quite agree that Yamamoto was a legit target, just as the Japanese would've been justified in taking out Nimitz, given the opportunity.
8.25.2005 9:41pm
SteveMG (mail):
>Yamamoto was in fact a uniformed member of Japan's navy, and thus clearly a legitimate target. I don't know if civilian leaders are legitimate targets in wartime or not.<

Agreed, but it's interesting (reportedly) that the American military officers in charge of the mission demanded that Truman approve the assassination. They wouldn't sign off unless Truman gave the thumbs up.

SMG
8.25.2005 9:42pm
Daniel Wiener (mail) (www):
Initiating an assassination is indeed an act of war, and as such it should require a prior declaration of war by Congress in order to conform to the Constitution. This makes it an impractical surprise tactic.

However, if the U.S. has already been attacked and is already in conflict with another nation, then the most moral action available is to try to take out the leader(s) of that nation with minimal collateral damage. President Bush's decapitation strike against Saddam and his sons was exactly the correct way to commence the military phase of the conflict (if there was going to be a military phase).

Unfortunately the decapitation strike failed, but it was a good attempt. And it made Iraqi Command &Control more difficult, since the top leadership was on the run knowing it was a high-priority target. Had the strike succeeded it might have cut short the conflict and allowed a quick negotiated surrender by Saddam's remaining generals.

Of course it is always difficult to predict "what if" scenarios. If a negotiated surrender left Baathists still in charge, it could have worsened prospects for a free and democratic Iraq. If a decapitation strike had left more competent generals in charge of Iraq's military forces, rather than Hussein, it could have increased our initial casualties.

Still, you go with the odds. A nation with its top leadership wiped out is likely to put up less resistance and be less of a threat than a nation still ruled by a widely-feared dictator.

Assassinations in the form of "targeted killings" against known enemy leaders is far more moral than mass killings of innocent enemy conscripted soldiers during the course of a war. One of the best things Israel has done is to take out leaders of Hamas and other terrorist factions. I think it has been an effective tactic, and even if its effectiveness was questionable it would be the morally-appropriate tactic.

Yes, our own leaders would be at increased risk. But why should they be safe and secure when our soldiers are dying in military conflicts? The risk of assassination should go with the job. It will weed out cowards, among other things. And we have a huge advantage over foreign dictators: The United States is a Constitutional republic, with a well-defined chain of succession. If we lose a President to an assassin, a new President steps right in and the country doesn't fall apart.
8.25.2005 10:29pm
Brutus:
"assassination has dubious value; often the leader that takes the place of his fallen predecessor has unexpected traits that are as bad or worse than those of the first leader."

Example?

"assassination destabalizes the whole country that it is applied to"

Example?

"most leaders that the U.S. would target aren't models of stability in the first place (Iraq, North Korea)"

North Korea is VERY stable! Only two leaders in the past 60 years. =D

"imagine what would happen if Chavez were to be killed next week; all of Latin America would instantly hate us."

They do already. If Chavez dies of natural causes next week, we'll be blamed regardless.

"Venezuala would be pushed even further into the orbit of Cuba"

Obviously the assassination has to be coordinated with a pro-US takeover.
8.25.2005 10:39pm
arthur (mail):
Foreign policy assassinations are also damn near impossible to arrange in a manner that permits the assassin to escape. Targets tend to be well guarded. Israel made numerous attempts on Arafat over the years without success. The United States has attempted several wll-known political assassinations in recent years without success. The bombing of Qaddafi's residence by Reagan is one prominent instance (several people were killed, including the target's baby daughter); the missile shot President Clinton directed at Osama bin Laden that arrived a few hours late in 1998, is another. It would not have been practical to reach those targets with any weapon smaller than an aerial bomb. The ineffectiveness of most historical instances is another reason not to try.
8.25.2005 10:51pm
gs (mail):
A law review article about the legalities of assassination is here.

Chavez seems a dangerous and malign man who wants to use oil money to achieve what Castro failed to do in the 1960s. Someday we might kick ourselves for going off after Saddam while leaving Chavez to entrench himself in our back yard.
8.25.2005 11:13pm
Anomolous:
Dr. Volokh says...

If political assassinations become common -- and remember that officials whose views you like will likely be assassinated no less often than officials whose views you dislike -- who will end up governing the country?


That is actually addressed in part 6 of the link above...

A frequent initial belief among people who have recently heard of my "assassination politics" idea is the fear that this system will somehow be "out of control": It would end up causing the death of ordinary, "undeserving" people.

This system, however, will not be without its own kind of "control. "Not a centralized control, decidable by a single individual, but a decentralized system in which everyone gets an implicit "vote." A good analogy might be to consider a society in which everyone's house thermostat is controlled to operate at a temperature which is set for the entire country. Each person's control input is taken as a "vote," whether to get hotter, colder, or to stay the same temperature. The central control computer adjusts the national setpoint temperature in order to equalize the number of people who want the temperature colder and hotter. Each house is at the same, nationally set temperature, however. Clearly, no one individual is in control of the setting. Nevertheless, I think it would be generally agreed that this system would never produce a REALLY "off the wall" temperature setting, simply because so many people's inputs are used to determine the output. Sure, if a group of 10,000 kids decided (assisted by the Internet) together to screw with the system, and they all set their houses' thermostat inputs to "hotter," they could SLIGHTLY increase the overall setting, but since there are probably about 100 million separate dwellings in the U.S., their fiddlings will be drowned out by the vast majority of the population's desires. Is this system "out of control"? True, it is out of the "control" of any single individual, but nevertheless it is well within the control of the population as a whole...
8.25.2005 11:33pm
267 (mail):

Agreed, but it's interesting (reportedly) that the American military officers in charge of the mission demanded that Truman approve the assassination. They wouldn't sign off unless Truman gave the thumbs up.


That story is apparently true, but it probably happened mainly (only?) because Yamamoto's travel plans were known only from decoded "Ultra" intercepts. That we could break Japan's best codes was the most important secret of the Pacific war, and use of the decrypts was handled very very carefully to avoid giving the game away.
8.25.2005 11:37pm
Matt G (mail) (www):
Well, let's not forget that the U.S. was the target of a sucessful foreign policy assassination in 1865. I do not consider this a legitimate action in war, simply because a basic rule of war is that you don't shoot the people who are carrying, or potentially carrying, peace messages. Can you imagine if the confederates or the Union troops at For Sumpter simply shot the people on the message boats as they traded communications with each other? All warring nations needs lines of diplomatic communication, and to kill the people who comprise these lines is to turn war between nation-states into simply war between headless beasts - there can be no end except complete surrender, and no mercy save the victor's benevolence. The leaders of nations, in my opinion, are part of this diplomatic chain. To kill them is to invite far more costly war than you avoid.
8.26.2005 12:11am
Paul Gowder (mail):
sir mix a lot's point is I think by far the most interesting point I've seen raised in any blog comment ever (and at least arguably correct, of course -- cf. Foucault on the personal authority of the sovereign manifested in pre-modern punishments). Nonetheless, I don't think it's entirely apposite to the killing of a dictator. Practically by definition a dictator has usurped personal sovereignty, independent of the ordinary political mechanisms of an established state.

(I also don't think I buy the theory of the separate existence of states on ethical grounds: that sort of idea opens the door to the Niebuhr-esque notion that the state has a privilege to act unethically even though the state only acts through individuals. That notion was conclusively refuted on practical grounds by WWII and then on theoretical grounds I think by Hannah Arendt.)
8.26.2005 1:22am
Drewsil (mail):
Matt,

I couldn't disagree with you more. The leaders are the people that initiated the war, and so are emminently reasonable targets of assasination (in fact one can quite plausibly argue they are the most morally culpable and hence better targets than anyone else). In any particular instance it may be counter productive to assasinate them, for the reasons you mention or others. Such counterproductive assasination would be a mistake in strategy or tactics, which mistakes tend to occur fairly often in wars. I cannot see any general principle that would keep one from performing such assasnitions though. This would go under the same category of argument as never charge a fortified position, usually good advice which you ignore at your own risk, but not advice that should never be ignored.
8.26.2005 1:25am
oddnutt (mail):
Obviously, many of readers are completely unaware that "targeted killing" is the preferred method of attacking one's enemies. Why, just the other day, Cindy Sheehan said on Hardball that we should have used that tactic against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, instead of "sending in invading armies". She prefers going after a "select group of people" and their leaders. What's wrong with you people?

http://msnbc.msn.com/id/8972147/
8.26.2005 1:49am
corvid (mail):
I've often thought how salutary it might be if an anonomous group were to decide to eliminate the top 100 individuals from the Forbes list of richest people. If kept up for a number of years, the state of the country - and the world- would improve immeasurably. I cannot think of any negatives at all.
8.26.2005 2:46am
Dan Simon (mail) (www):
Second, democracies have much more to lose from an increase in the number of foreign policy assassinations than do tyrannies.

I strongly disagree. In a democracy, if the democratically accountable leader is assassinated, another democratically accountable leader steps in, and life goes on pretty much as before. That--not some kind of grand moral bargain with the world's tyrants and killers--is what keeps enemies of democracies (Palestinian terrorists, for instance) focused on killing large numbers of civilians rather than individual leaders. After all, they know who the real bosses are.

Some dictatorships are similarly institutionalized. Assassinating Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei, for example, or Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, would likely change little in either country. However, some dictatorships are "cults of personality" whose orderly functioning depends on the absolute command of the charismatic leader. Those leaders are precisely the ones whose assassination would be tempting if push came to shove. (Some believe that Venezuela's Hugo Chavez falls into that category. And many certainly put Saddam Hussein there, while he was in power.) And in the case of those countries, democracies are at a distinct advantage, because of their institutional stability.
8.26.2005 3:17am
Paul doson (mail) (www):
Dam good posting.I read some of you're articles and they are really nice.
Paul
8.26.2005 3:35am
Splunge (mail):
I think Matt G nails it. Mr. Volokh is clearly correct that the morality of assassination when you are already at war is quite moot. But the practicality is another question entirely.

War is almost never a fight to the utter national destruction of one side. We almost always expect an opponent to rationally conclude, at some point, that he cannot win and it is time to cut his losses, negotiate a surrender, and wait for a better day. But that's only possible when his leadership remains largely intact. If you've been assassinating his leaders left and right, with whom will you negotiate? How can you be know the other side will be able to implement the terms of your armistice? And so on. In other words, if you preferentially target the brains of your enemy, you risk creating a brainless berserker that you must destroy in order to defeat.

It's worth noting, in light of other comments above, that wars fought in previous centuries, when leadership was much more centralized in one person, were far less bloody than wars fought in the twentieth century, when leadership has been much more decentralized, diffused throughout a political party like the Communists or National Socialists, for example. The reason may be that when leadership is diffused it's much harder for a decision that the war is lost to crystallize. People are often more rational as individuals than as members of a mob, after all.
8.26.2005 8:01am
TheGoodReverend (mail) (www):
In a Walzerian, "just war" sort of way, I suppose assassination is a morally wrong tactic in conducting war because of issues of consent--the political leader isn't, in most cases, a uniformed soldier who consented to a kill-or-be-killed arrangement. However, Walzer leaves an out for these sorts of hard and fast rules, and there might be situations where it is helpful here: though a tactic might be morally wrong, we still might encounter a situation in which we want our leader to make that choice. For instance, in an extreme situation, where our enemy is an absolute evil, and assassinating its leader, though morally wrong, would both definitely cease that evil and be the only way to do so, we might demand that our leader break the rule against assassination.
8.26.2005 8:34am
Brutus:
"Well, let's not forget that the U.S. was the target of a sucessful foreign policy assassination in 1865. I do not consider this a legitimate action in war, simply because a basic rule of war is that you don't shoot the people who are carrying, or potentially carrying, peace messages."

This asserts that Booth was an instrument of deliberate Confederate government policy. Such a case has not been proven. But even if we grant this, would this not be a fairly convincing way for the Confederate government to respond to a peace offer? "Peace offer? Here's your answer..." BANG!

"We almost always expect an opponent to rationally conclude, at some point, that he cannot win and it is time to cut his losses, negotiate a surrender, and wait for a better day. But that's only possible when his leadership remains largely intact."

This assumes that the opponent is rational, and expects to survive, personally, his defeat. If the enemy leader is a madman, or expects to be overthrown and/or killed after the armistice, then he's not going to quit. If you could kill him and bring a "peace faction" into power, that would be another thing entirely. Of course, this might create a "stab in the back" myth in the defeated nation - "you didn't beat us fair and square, you only won because you cheated, killing the Great Leader and bringing traitors to power".
8.26.2005 9:36am
RB (mail):
"Agreed, but it's interesting (reportedly) that the American military officers in charge of the mission demanded that Truman approve the assassination. They wouldn't sign off unless Truman gave the thumbs up."
*********************

Yamamoto was killed in April 1943 while FDR was President and Harry Truman was US Senator from Missouri.
8.26.2005 10:52am
Anderson (mail) (www):
I was about to make that point, RB. But if Wikipedia is to be believed, FDR's approval was indeed obtained by Admiral King before the plan was executed---excessive caution, it seems to me.
8.26.2005 11:11am
CatCube (mail):
"FDR's approval was indeed obtained by Admiral King before the plan was executed---excessive caution, it seems to me"

I thought (haven't looked it up in a while) that the Navy's reluctance to kill Yamamoto was due to moral concerns--that you *do not* target a specific person. War was to be conducted against an enemy army in aggregate, but targeting a certain individual was considered treacherous.
8.26.2005 12:11pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
I think you're right, CatCube, but I also think that the Navy brass's feelings were inconsistent with military practice.

Snipers have always targeted officers, particularly generals. Nelson at Trafalgar comes to mind.

I think what creeped out Nimitz et al. was that they, high-level admirals, were being called upon to "make the hit" in a way that they rarely are in war. Usually the guy in the field takes his opportunity as he finds it.
8.26.2005 12:29pm
Kedawi (mail):
Having read the post and the comments, it seems that one of Prof. Volokh's initial sentances provides the key to this discussion. "Government-sponsored assassination is essentially an act of war;..."

The same considerations that determine whether the use of war is just also apply to the use of assassination. See Steve Bainbridge's post on Mirror of Justice, Robertson, Chavez and Just War Theory .
8.26.2005 12:52pm
Brian G (mail) (www):
For some reason, I think only the goofy anti-war left would be upset if we whacked Castro, Chavez, Gaddafi, Abbas, or Mugabe.

Come to think of it, whacking Robert Mugabe is a great idea. This Pat Robertson thing reminds me of a line from "American Pie":

Finch: "I'd don't like the kid but he's got a point."
8.26.2005 1:14pm
Robert Schwartz (mail):
I think that Israel proved the effectiveness of assassination as a tool, by sending 3 hammas leaders to their 72 clear raisins in the space of a couple of months. But they also showed that it is darn difficult to do unless you have real good intel on the whereabouts of the intended targets. At one point they dropped a 1,000 pound bomb on the house of one of these creatures and succeed in killing a large number of family members and neighbors, but not their target.

As for not starting a tit for tat campaign of assassination, I don't think that is a real issue with islamo-nazi terrorists. I think its fair to assume that men who would blow up women and children on city buses will not scruple an assassination of one of our leaders. If they haven't done it yet it is because they don't have the capability to mount the operation, as they have all of the malice you could ask for.
8.26.2005 1:23pm
roaming gnome:
the claim that the US raid on Libya killed Qaddafi's adopted daughter, repeated above, is Libyan propaganda that unfortunately has become ingrained in the public consciousness.

LIBYA A WEEK AFTER RAID: QADDAFI SEEMS FIRMLY IN CONTROL, The New York Times, April 24, 1986

"Two of his sons, asleep in the house, remain hospitalized, one of them with serious brain damage, according to doctors. A 15-month-old girl who doctors and the Government have said was an adopted daughter of Colonel Qaddafi was killed in the raid. The presence of the adopted daughter appears to have been little known previously."

Libyans Show Bombed Naval School;
Qaddafi Reportedly In Severe Depression After U.S. Air Raid
The Washington Post, April 21, 1986

"Members of Qaddafi's family were inside, and at least two of his young sons were wounded. Qaddafi's relationship to the dead 15-month-old girl is still not clear. Libyan officials have said she was his adopted daughter, although U.S. sources say they doubt this is true."

KHADAFY'S ADOPTED GIRL A FABRICATION, EXILE SAYS, Chicago Tribune, May 10, 1986

Former Libyan Prime Minister Abdel-Hamid Bakoush, now in exile in Egypt, said more than 300 Libyans died in the U.S. bombing raids last month and reports that Moammar Khadafy's "adopted daughter" was one of the casualties were fabricated. Bakoush was quoted Friday as saying the Libyan leader made up the story that his 15-month-old daughter, Hana, was killed to convince Libyans he was
sharing in their grief. "Khadafy never had an adopted daughter," Bakoush said.
8.26.2005 1:33pm
NickM (mail) (www):
There are some heads of state who are so personally brutally evil that it is hard to imagine an alternative being worse if they are simply assassinated (although arguably descending into a Somalia-style anarchy is worse). Idi Amin may be the best known example of these, although Jean-Bedel Bokassa and Francisco Macias Nguema may exceed him in venality. Robert Mugabe is likely the current worst offender in this regard (although he cannot sink to the level of the others without eating his opponents).

From a moral standpoint, Mugabe is personally responsible for the deaths of innocents among his own country's people daily, which to me eliminates any moral objection to his assassination.

From a practical standpoint, his assassination would not likely lead to greater international problems - he is regarded as a pariah by the world community, so that few, if any, other nations would become hostile toward the U.S. because of this; he appears to hold power through fraud and violence, so that his elimination would be popular among the populace; he governs with a personality cult rather than council of advisers, such that there is not a great likelihood of a simple transition to another leader like him; and he is a soft target by the standards of the U.S. military (think airstrikes). The major practical drawback, IMO, is that Zimbabwe might well become another Somalia if assassination is used by itself.

The "blowback" consequences that Eugene speaks of are minimized if the target is a "tinpot dictator" - Zimbabwe does not have the capacity to engage in retaliatory attacks far outside its borders, and I cannot imagine rational leaders of relatively powerful countries setting their own policies on assassination while being unaware of this.

Many of the factors that might make a particular assassination most legitimate will also contribute the most to causing the result of an assassination without follow-up to be a descent into a Somalia-style chaos - in other words, assassination carries with it the moral responsibility to then engage in nation-building. At that point, one might as well openly invade and carry out a strike on the high command (similar to the opening sortie against Saddam and his sons).

Nick
8.26.2005 2:56pm
Ed:
Well there are in my opinion problems with both the assassinate the top 100 people on the forbes money list, and also with assasination politics where everyone chips in a dollar to assassinate person X.

With the forbes list and I think the poster was being sarcastic, possible negative effects would be the shortage of charitable donations. Many of the wealthiest people make the largest charitable donations. Second while the death tax would bring in some money it would likely overall dampen the money raised by the government in taxation on a long term basis. Thirdly I fail to see the benefit of killing person A one year, and since he left most of his money to his daughter, killing her the next year.

As for assassination politics, two flaws I can see. Flaw one I will call the Soros effect. Wealthy person says heck with it I don't like an important person I will put in 1 million dollars. While this could be defeated by allowing a maximum of 1 dollar to be put in from any individual, what is to stop him from paying 1 million people to vote that way with a 10 to 1 payout.
Secondly, if it allows a open bounty as I seem to read it as saying, does that not value some peoples lives higher then others? Perhaps $1000 to knock off the policeman who wrote me that speeding ticket, but 1 Million to knock of the CEO of Acme Inc. for providing Wiley Coyote with all those devices to try to catch the Roadrunner.

Assassination as a foreign policy tool is best left in pandoras box, even if it could in some cases such as N. Korea prove useful.
8.26.2005 3:18pm
Anomolous:
Ed said:

As for assassination politics, two flaws I can see.



The (yes, unfortunately long) article addresses (if not answers) most of the common questions like yours.
8.26.2005 3:30pm
arbitraryaardvark (mail) (www):
Careful with that axe eugene:
I found it interesting that by the time I got to the comment thread Jim Bell's assasination politcs had already been posted. AP is a logical extension of the work on idea futures Robin Hanson had been doing (see marginal revolutions), but its publication was controversial, and Bell was arrested (possibly set up; I don't claim to have all the facts.) I've avoided blogging about it for years because I don't welcome that sort of interest. I think it should be clear to everybody that EV is speculating on policy questions, not engaging in crime-facilitating speech. He has the wuffie, reputation capital, to back up such a claim, Bell didn't, I don't.
Assasination by a government invites massive retaliation. So instead, those in the game prefer to use private sector actors. Not just plausible deniability, but entirely non-governmental agents. It would be wrong, tactically, for Bush to have Mugabe whacked, but it might be right, tactically, for some individual to do so.
I'm a vegetarian, in the hope that by not killing and eating my neighbors, they will be less likely to kill and eat me. Similarly, I refrain from assasinations, even if I might think some people just need killin'. I'm agnostic on whether there are circumstances where it's ever both moral and practical.
8.26.2005 6:35pm
Leo Comerford (mail) (www):
In fact, during WWII the UK did have a Hitler-assassination program, Operation Foxley (see here). I remember seeing a documentary on British TV which stated that they actually did get a man in place with a rifle and a vantage point over Hitler's regular walk through Berchtesgaden, but ordered him not to proceed. The given reason was that having Hitler in control of German military strategy was tremendously valuable to the Allies. This is highly plausible, but I wonder if the Allied demand for unconditional surrender influenced the decision.
8.29.2005 3:56am
Tilo Reber (mail):
"Assassination, like terrorism, is a tool that can be used by weak states (or weak non-state actors, like terrorists) against strong states. The U.S.'s refusal to assassinate world leaders (or at least, its heavy reluctance to do so) serves to reinforce the norm against assassination that ultimately protects U.S. Presidents."

A weak state which assassinates the president of a strong state must be ready for a retaliation from that strong state that they are not able to handle. And while we should try to protect the U.S. President as much as possible, there are higher priorities than the absolute guarantee of his safety.

"(Insert speculations that Kennedy's assassination was payback for his earlier assassination plots against Castro here)"

Good argument for making sure that you succeed. The leaders that replace the assassinated individual are not as likely to want to punish you for their opportunity.

"As a policy tool, assassination has dubious value; often the leader that takes the place of his fallen predecessor has unexpected traits that are as bad or worse than those of the first leader."

I see no basis for such a generalization. Nor do I see a reason why the replacement cannot be assassinated if he turns out to be that odious. What I do see, however, is that if assassination of dictators and theocrats becomes a commonly and extensively used tool, and if those dictators and theocrats see their longevity in terms of months instead of years, then their behaviour will be radiacally influenced. They may choose to live and therefore have elections. They may not want to be talls polls of oppression in the world, knowing that the tall polls of oppression are at the top of the assassination list.

"Also assassination destabalizes the whole country that it is applied to; since most leaders that the U.S. would target aren't models of stability in the first place (Iraq, North Korea), stirring the pot often isn't such a great idea."

It's hard to imagine that stirring the pot in places like Iraq and North Korea could make things worse. In any case, a temporary condition of having things worse may well be much better that a condition of having things really bad for fourty or more years as in Iraq and Korea.

"Assassination also wrecks havoc on international opinion: imagine what would happen if Chavez were to be killed next week; all of Latin America would instantly hate us."

Would they? Chaves is not all of that popular with many in his own country. And I doubt that the people who are being killed by the communist guerrillas he supports would object very much. In any case, popularity is a poor excuse for not doing the right thing.

"Say goodbye to the FTAA, CAFTA,"

Not a chance. South America is not going to throw away something that benefits them so greatly for Chavez.

"Also, Venezuala would be pushed even further into the orbit of Cuba,"

Depends of the infatuation of the new leader with communism. I doubt that many are as enamored of it as Chavez.

"No one here is old enough to remember the fear that the Kennedy assisnation engendered among average people; it was a shocking reminder that even our most secure citizen could be reached by our enemies"

I remember it and I had no fear at all. Even as a kid I understood that we had a chain of command to take over.

"Would we really want to bring upon us another 9/11-szie disruption of our economy and political life merely to knock out a guy like Chavez? I seriously doubt it."

I think that your mistake is in thinking that the people who carried out 9/11 wouldn't do so again if they could, regardless of what our assassination policy is. And nations like Venuzela are unlikely to want to commit actions like 9/11 even if their president is assassinated. Depending on who the new guy is he may or may not want to assassinate our president, but I doubt that he would go for a 9/11 level attack. Nobody wants to end up on the run and living in a cave.

Now let's deal with the assassination of Chavez in particular. I cannot support the assassination of democratically elected leaders except in extreme circumstances. In the case of Chavez, his election may have been tainted, but we cannot know for certain, so let's give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he was properly elected. Recently he has passed legislation that makes critisism of him in Venezuela punishable by imprisonment. So certainly the next election held there will be illegitimate. In a certain sense, then, he is already a dictator. And he has always been a friend and supporter of other dictators like Castro, Kaddafi, and Saddam. Finally, his ambition is to spread communism both in his own country and in those around him. He finances communist guerrillas who regularly use assassination as a tool. I don't consider him to be the foremost target for assassination, but I would consider him to be well qualified. Kim Jong Il and the Grand Ayatollahs of Iran would be higher on my list.
8.29.2005 11:32am
Rich Rostrom (mail):
I think EV has pretty much nailed it. OT1H, assassination is morally preferable to war in cases such as Mugabe, Castro, Assad, SLORC, Chavez, or Kim Jong-Il. Had the 1994 attempt on Hitler succeeded, the war would have ended swiftly, and the Allies would have had to kill far fewer Germans. OTOH, such tyrants can hide in bunkers and fortresses, with massive bodyguards. The leaders of democracies can't.

On yat another hand, though, democracies can (usually) survive the loss of one or another political leader. Not even Churchill was indispensable.

Yet another point: assassination is an act of war. If the war is open and declared, that's one thing. But trying to substitute assassination for open war counts as treachery: opening fire under cover of peaceful relations.
8.30.2005 5:05pm