Murder is a crime, but it can also be a temptation. Dispatching an unsavoury individual seems, on some occasions, like the best solution, and the current upheaval in Syria offers a ready example.
Clamping down on a popular uprising, President Bashar al-Assad has killed thousands of his own people. Calls for humanitarian intervention in Syria probably will go unheeded because there is little consensus in the international community . Even setting aside Russia’s objections, major Western nations seem to have neither the appetite nor the resources to intervene.
So some experts are looking for creative solutions to Syria’s misery. Writing this week in The Daily Beast, foreign-policy analyst Peter Beinart conducts a “thought experiment” by asking if “America should try to kill Bashar al-Assad?” Terminating a foreign head of state is a startling proposition, and even more surprising, given the fact that Mr. Beinart is a sober and thoughtful writer, qualities especially evident in his excellent new book, The Crisis of Zionism.
In his column, he doesn’t quite baldy advocate killing Mr. al-Assad, but he does deftly dispatch many of the standard objections to such action. Isn’t there an executive order going back to Gerald Ford barring assassinations of foreign leaders? True enough, but as Mr. Beinart notes, legal qualms haven’t prevented U.S. presidents from supporting coups and outright assassination attempts. He cites Ngo Dinh Diem, Salvador Allende and Saddam Hussein, but he could have also added assassinations and attempts involving Fidel Castro, Patrice Lumumba and Rafael Trujillo.
Don’t such assassinations invite blowback, possibly in the form of other countries retaliating ? Unlikely, he notes, given the preponderance of U.S. power. Isn’t assassination tawdry and immoral? But, as Mr. Beinart observes, the targeted killing of terrorist leaders like al-Qaeda official Abu Yahya al-Libi wins “widespread public acclaim” and humanitarian interventions also have broad political support. A laser-like focus on eliminating one man like Mr. al-Assad offers a much cleaner way of solving the Syrian ordeal than full-scale military action, with the attendant loss of life.
Mr. Beinart’s arguments are blunt and almost plausible, so it’s useful to remind ourselves why assassinating foreign leaders remains a bad idea, deeply at odds not just with international law but the whole attempt to build a world governed by rules rather than violence. As Mr. Beinart implies, Americans are often cavalier about international law and sovereignty, but there are serious reasons not to visit on heads of state the violence used on terrorist groups.
Cold War support for assassination is hardly a reassuring precedent, especially since it had troubling consequences. The many plots against Mr. Castro, which were initiated under the Eisenhower administration and continued during the Kennedy presidency, are sometimes treated as a farce since they included such outlandish gimmicks as exploding cigars and a scuba outfit infected with a lethal bacteria – plans closer in spirit to Police Academy than James Bond.
But these oafish schemes had a very real effect, cementing the alliance with the Soviet Union that precipitated the Cuban Missile Crisis and brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation. Despite what Mr. Beinart says, the Cuban example shows that the U.S. isn’t powerful enough not to have to worry about retaliation. All violence invites reprisal, which can quickly spin out of control.
More recently, not only did the strike against Saddam Hussein fail in 2003, even after he was captured after the invasion and executed three years later, the fierce insurgency in Iraq fuelled by nationalism and ethnic grievances continued unabated.
The ex-dictator was responsible for many sins, but removing him was no guarantee of peace and democracy – and there’s no reason to think that eliminating Mr. al-Assad would do the same.
Behind the policy of assassination is a version of the Great Man theory – the idea that bad things happen because of the malice of a few powerful people. Assassination advocates often ask: Would the world not be better had someone killed Hitler in 1937? Surprisingly, the answer is not so clear-cut.
Hitler was evil, but he was also the leader of a mass movement . Had he been eliminated, other fanatical Nazis such as Joseph Goebbels were waiting in the wings to follow through with the thousand-year Reich.
Assassination as a policy tool is based on a fantasy view of the world in which the killing of one person, or a few people, can solve deep-rooted social and political problems. The Syria situation is upsetting, but we owe it to that nation’s people to try to think of genuine solutions – and not daydream about easy victories.