Stephen Walt over at Foreign Policy debates the pros and cons of assassination, and explains why the practice might be growing increasingly acceptable to pundits and policymakers.
The prompt for Walt’s reflection was news that NATO attacked Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s compound in Tripoli. NATO officials deny this was an attempt to kill Gadhafi, but Walt writes, “it is hard to believe that the officials responsible weren't hoping for a lucky shot….”
Citing Ward Thomas, Walt then explains how assassination receded as a tool of foreign policy:
"This shift occurred in part because great powers preferred to confine conflict to the clash of armies on the battlefield (where they had the advantage over weaker states), and partly because it helped enshrine the idea that war was conducted by states and not by individuals."
But circumstances are changing in such a way as to make assassination more palatable to great power leaders, Walt argues:
1. “as warfare became increasingly destructive, states began to look for cheaper alternatives.”
2. “terrorist groups routinely employ assassination against the states they oppose, and states have responded with targeted killings against suspected terrorist leaders.”
3. “in the post-Nuremberg environment, national leaders are increasingly seen as individually responsible and morally accountable for acts undertaken at their behest.”
This is troubling, says Walt, for another three reasons:
1. innocents may be killed along with the supposedly guilty
2. the murder of these innocents may create yet more adversaries
3. assassinations justify similar actions taken against U.S. leaders. Walt writes that this is the most important point:
“Targeted assassinations of foreign despots may seem like a cheap and efficient way of solving today's problem, but we won't enjoy living in a world where foreign adversaries think attacking U.S. leaders (including the president and his inner circle) is a perfectly legitimate way of doing business. And notice that making targeted killings more legitimate tends to level the international playing field: you don't have to be a powerful or wealthy state to organize a few hit squads and cause lots of trouble for your enemies. So even if this attempt at "decapitation" were to succeed in the short-term, the longer-term consequences may not be quite so salutary."
Do you agree? Should NATO assassinate Gadhafi?
For another interesting take on this question, check out former State Department Director of Policy Planning, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article “Mercy Killings” from Foreign Policy in 2003 where she argues that the United Nations should issue death warrants against dangerous dictators.