Sarah Palin’s Hot Pursuit
When the Republican vice presidential nominee contradicted her running mate’s position on Pakistan Saturday, she accidentally stumbled onto a fierce debate about the new laws of warfare.
A recent series of raids and missile strikes by U.S. Special Forces against Islamic militants in the lawless tribal areas along the Durand Line have strained U.S.-Pakistani troops to the breaking point. Pakistani paramilitary troops are even rumored to have shot at U.S. helicopters. And throwing more gas on the fire, vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin said she supported the controversial strikes, a view at odds with that of her running mate. In a Sunday interview with ABC's This Week, John McCain clarified that her comment was not a definitive policy statement.
A recent series of raids and missile strikes by U.S. Special Forces against Islamic militants in the lawless tribal areas along the Durand Line have strained U.S.-Pakistani troops to the breaking point. Pakistani paramilitary troops are even rumored to have shot at U.S. helicopters. And throwing more gas on the fire, vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin said she supported the controversial strikes, a view at odds with that of her running mate. In a Sunday interview with ABC’s This Week, John McCain clarified that her comment was not a definitive policy statement.
Though the Alaska governor’s off-the-cuff remarks were widely seen as a gaffe, Palin — and before her Barack Obama, who was pilloried for saying much the same thing in August 2007 — may have inadvertently stumbled upon one of the key unresolved questions of the brave new world of terrorism, international criminal networks, and drug traffickers: Should a country be allowed to temporarily violate another country’s sovereignty to go after, say, wanted terrorists or war criminals?
In fact, the launching of raids by foreign armies, agents, or even pilotless drones in pursuit of non-state actors is not a new phenomenon. Nation’s routinely violate each others sovereignty with impunity, be it U.S. forces pursuing Vietcong guerrillas in Cambodia or Rwanda’s Tutsi-led military pursuing Hutu militants in the Congo. Just this spring, Colombian forces raided FARC guerillas in Ecuador, and Turkey alone has carried out several dozen incursions against PKK targets in Iraq. Stretching further back, the U.S. military didn’t think twice about crossing into Mexico to chase down Pancho Villa in 1916.
Given the borderless nature of today’s enemies, it seems reasonable that states that can’t control the bad guys within their own territory should lose the right to complain when others try to do it for them. After all, self-defense is well-enshrined in international law as a general principle, most notably under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter.
But in fact, international lawyers and military strategists passionately disagree over the legal validity of such cross-border attacks. The term “hot pursuit” refers to an obscure maritime law on the ability of a state’s navy to pursue a foreign ship that has violated laws in its territorial waters, even if the ship flees to the high seas. Yet critics of the doctrine point out that there is no legal precedent for this theory on land. “This idea of hot pursuit is merely an attempt to twist the law of the sea doctrine into a self-defense idea,” says Peter Danchin, an assistant professor of law at the University of Maryland. “What we’re talking about is the illegal use of force against the territory of another state.”
Military honchos disagree and say “hot pursuit” is becoming just another component of the U.S. rules of engagement, which spell out when, where and how force can be applied. As Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute (now President Bush’s “war czar”) told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2007, U.S. forces do not need the approval of the Pakistani government “to pursue, either with fires or on the ground, across the border.” Even surveillance reports of insurgents setting up rockets and pointing them toward Afghanistan are enough to trigger a U.S. military response, he added. According to a classified 2005 memo released last February by Wikileaks, a whistle-blower-like Web site that publishes sensitive government or corporate documents, U.S. forces were also apparently authorized to enter Iran and Syria to pursue insurgents. President Bush’s declaration in January 2007 to seek out and destroy terrorist networks in those two Middle Eastern countries further hinted at the use of “hot pursuit” as a legitimate counterterrorism tactic.
Democrats have largely defended Obama’s position on Pakistan, even as they seized upon the evident daylight between Palin and McCain on this issue. But interestingly, the Illinois senator’s embrace of “hot pursuit” puts him squarely in the same camp of the Wall Street Journal editorial board and Washington’s neoconservatives. Hawks on the right have long favored “taking the fight to the terrorists”, especially with regard to Iran or Syria, given that most jihadists in Iraq enter through Syria and Iranian agents continue to arm Shiite militias there, according to U.S. officials.
“[I]nternational law recognizes the right of hot pursuit and holds states liable for letting their territory be used to stage attacks on neighbors,” Max Boot, a neoconservative, wrote last year in the Weekly Standard, in a nod to international legal norms on state responsibility and U.N. Security Council Resolution 1373, passed in the wake of 9/11 to justify the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. “Hot pursuit” does not justify bombing Damascus or Tehran, its proponents argue, just limited air strikes or commando raids of terrorist strongholds. The response must be immediate, proportional, and a means of last resort, and generally speaking, a chase should be afoot — hence the term “hot pursuit.”
The trouble is, the same type of cross-border raids that seem justified in certain cases could lead to disaster in others. Generally speaking, we trust countries like United States, Turkey, and Colombia to respond to terrorist activity with the appropriate level of force, but what about others? Were twitchy states permitted to just strike their neighbors every time a terrorist network carried out an attack, the whole international system might break down. Small incursions run the risk of turning into regional conflagrations, as Colombia’s raid of Ecuador demonstrated. And militaries too often tend to overreach and use disproportional force — needlessly killing civilians and turning local sentiment against the state.
Instead of bombing, a better alternative would be to work closer with local militaries and intelligence agencies, project more soft power to turn locals against the non-state actors — something that has been marginally successful in southeastern Turkey — and to strengthen laws on extradition. To sanction the use of force, however, opens up a dangerous can of worms. Imagine if Russian outlaws were to flee to Alaska: Governor Palin might change her views were Russian forces to come across the strait to nab them.
Lionel Beehner is an adjunct professor in the Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program and a co-editor of Reconsidering American Civil-Military Relations.
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