- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
When my clock radio went off this AM, the first story I heard was about a NATO air attack on Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi’s compound near Tripoli. Although NATO officials have denied that this was an attempt to kill Qaddafi, it is hard to believe that the officials responsible weren’t hoping for a lucky shot. U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham told CNN that it was time to "to cut the head of the snake off, go to Tripoli, start bombing Qaddafi’s inner circle, their compounds, their military headquarters." Similarly, Senator Joe Lieberman called for "going directly after Qaddafi," saying that "I can’t think of anything that would protect the civilian population of Libya more than [his] removal."
In a situation like this, it is obviously tempting to think you can solve the problem by removing the bad guy at the top. Instead of a prolonged civil war that kills lots of combatants and civilians and inflicts vast property damage, why not just get rid of the individual you think is causing all the trouble, and maybe a few of his closest associates? To take the most obvious case: with the benefit of hindsight, wouldn’t it have been far better to take out Adolf Hitler sometime in the 1930s? By a similar logic, wouldn’t a surgical strike on Qaddafi and his inner circle be preferable to a protracted civil war?
But before you conclude that targeted assassination is the way to go, I suggest you read Ward Thomas’ 2000 International Security article "Norms and Security: The Case of International Assassionation." Thomas traces the evolution of attitudes, norms, and practices regarding international assassination, and shows how they have changed significantly over time. He argues that assassination was a fairly common foreign policy tool a few centuries ago, but a combination of shifting material interests and evolving normative principles led to the emergence of a fairly strong norm against the killing of foreign leaders, even during wartime. 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. Thus, the norm helped reinforce the political legitimacy of the state itself, and it eventually grew so powerful that even deeply hostile states did not make serious efforts to kill each other’s leaders.
Thomas also argues that the norm appears to be breaking down, for three separate reasons. First, as warfare became increasingly destructive, states began to look for cheaper alternatives. Second, terrorist groups routinely employ assassination against the states they oppose, and states have responded with targeted killings against suspected terrorist leaders. Third, and perhaps most interestingly, in the post-Nuremberg environment, national leaders are increasingly seen as individually responsible and morally accountable for acts undertaken at their behest. The creation of an International Criminal Court is another sign of a shifting moral and legal context in which raison d’etat no longer protects national leaders from accountability (if they lose, of course). And if individual leaders are seen as morally responsible, then it is easier to slip into viewing them as legitimate targets in war.
Of course, the United States (and some other countries) have been on this slippery slope for awhile, given our reliance on targeted killings in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. The practice is troubling on at least three grounds. First, due to the imperfect nature of intelligence and the inevitable "fog of war," targeted killings inevitably murder innocents along with the supposedly guilty. Second, and following from the first point, killing innocent bystanders may create more adversaries than it eliminate, thereby undermining the strategic purpose of the program itself.
Third, and perhaps most important of all, going after foreign leaders-no matter how despicable-helps legitimate a tactic that will eventually be visited back upon us. If the world’s most powerful countries see fit to kill any foreign leader that they don’t like, what’s to stop those same (presumably evil) leaders from threatening to pay us back in kind? 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.