The normalization of assassination

Most of President Trump’s critics, at home and abroad, saw nothing morally wrong with  the killing of Iranian General Qasim Soleimani.  They criticized the murder on pragmatic and procedural grounds.

They said that while Soleimani was a bad person who deserved to die, killing him at this particular time until these particular circumstances without proper consultation would have dire consequences.

I don’t claim to know what happens next, but right now it looks as if the consequences might not be all that dire.  If so, the critics seem like a bunch of nervous nellies—provided you see nothing wrong with assassination in and of itself.

President Trump

Iranians fired missiles with pinpoint accuracy at two U.S. military bases, causing damage but not casualties.  Their action was a demonstration of American vulnerability and Iranian restraint.

It’s worth remembering that the United States simulated an invasion of Iran in the Millennial Challenge 2002 war games, and lost badly.  An all-out shooting war is not in the interest of either side.

Iranian and Hezbollah leaders said they will take revenge in the form of stepped-up attacks on U.S. troops.  They said they will spare American civilians.

I think Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper regard increased American military casualties as an acceptable loss.  If they cared about the lives of American troops, they would have wound down the futile Afghanistan campaign years ago.

One danger is that Trump, Pompeo and Esper will regard Iranian restraint as weakness.  Pompeo has said he hopes increased economic pressure will make the current Iranian government fall.

That’s entirely possible, but the replacement Iranian government would be more fiercely anti-American and less restrained than the current one.

For now, both sides have stepped back from the brink.  What many feared did not happen.  Trump’s procedural sins do not seem all that bad.

But a precedent has been set – that the assassination of foreign leaders is one more foreign policy option that has to be considered.  Killing leaders of foreign governments may be expedient or inexpedient, but we think about it on a case by case basis.

Here are some of that bad consequences that can flow from the new ethical normal.

  1. Our government, having decided that it is all right to commit criminal acts against foreigners, would decide it is all right to commit criminal acts against citizens.
  2. Democratic foreign governments would decide the United States is a rogue state and unite to stop it.  This would more likely come in the form of economic boycotts, divestment and sanctions rather than a military alliance..
  3. Authoritarian foreign governments would take the United States as a role model.  Assassinations would become commonplace, and some of them would be of American leaders..

I can remember when assassination was regarded something that only totalitarian dictators did.  I only know of two assassinations conducted by Allies in World War Two—Reinhardt Heydrich in 1942 and Isoroku Yamamoto in 1943.

During the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency committed and enabled assassinations.  The justification was that the United States was in effect at war with the Soviet Union, a ruthless and powerful foe who threatened our very existence, and, as in World War Two, any means of waging war was justified.

The public was shocked when this was brought to light by the Church Committee in the 1970s.  Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan all issued executive orders forbidding assassinations, each order stronger than the preceding one.

This policy was not followed.  All three administrations backed Operation Condor, which was the systematic murder of opposition forces by right-wing dictators in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and other countries.

Ayatollah Khamenei

The significance of the executive orders was that they showed assassination was not acceptable to American public opinion—or at least to a significant segment of American public opinion.  Whatever U.S. officials did, they could not afford to admit being involved in assassinations.

Things changed after the 9/11 attacks and the war on terror.  Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld began a policy of using remotely controlled drones to assassinate Al Qaeda leaders.

President Obama doubled down on that policy.  He made targeted killing a substitute for invasion.  He set a precedent of killing an American citizen on his personal determination that that person constitutes a terrorist threat.  He set another precedent of killing that citizen’s teenage son and his friends.

Donald Trump in his 2016 presidential campaign campaigned on a platform of stepping up targeted killing, a promise he has kept.  He promised in his campaign that he would authorize torture and the killing of enemies’ children.  He sees nothing wrong with atrocities in war.

Trump’s war policy is a step downward, morally and ethically, for Americans.  It is the latest in a series of steps downward and, sadly, it probably won’t be the last.

I hope we Americans can wake up to the reality of what is being done in our name.   There’s enough left of American freedom and democracy for us to put a stop to it if we really want to.  Otherwise we and those who come after us will face a terrible retribution.


Axis of Resistance Says How It Will Avenge Qasem Soleimani on Moon of Alabama.

Iranian and Hezbollah leaders oppose attacking civilians as Trump threatens to bomb cultural sites by Ben Norton for The Gray Zone.

Lies, the Bethlehem Doctrine and the Illegal Murder of Soleimani by Craig Murray.  Important.  Defense against “imminent attack” doesn’t mean what the word “imminent” implies it means.

The United States Assassination of Iranian Military Leader Violates International Law by David Inder Comar for Common Dreams.

Soleimani’s assassination and the muddled moralism behind it by Robert Wright for Nonzero.

The Real Reason the U.S. Is Interested in Iran by Kurt Cobb for OilPrice.

Full-Scale War Is Avoided and Trump Goes Right Back to Warmongering by Caitlin Johnstone.

A New Middle East “Made in Iran” Is About to be Born by Elijah J. Magnier.

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2 Responses to “The normalization of assassination”

  1. Alex Page Says:

    Yes. It’s also quite weak rhetorically to criticize the assassination on procedural grounds without fundamentally opposing it, which seems to be the mainstream Dem line.

    ‘He was the world’s worst monster and I’m glad he’s dead, but you didn’t fill out the right forms sir!’ is hardly a stirring indictment, let alone a starting point for a robust anti-war movement.


  2. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    I think assassination has been common in world affairs since the Cold War. The Soviets and CIA/MI6 were assassinating people all over the place. (I’m sure other countries were in on it too but I have no information on that.) Pragmatism was what kept us from killing more. If we started knocking off Soviet VIPs they’d start going after ours and vice versa. Neither side wanted that.

    The rules are different for second and third rate powers than for top tier countries. Since Iran cannot effectively respond, the rules are less stringent.

    In WWII we would happily have assassinated every German and Japanese commander we could find. Most of them weren’t easily found. The assassination of a military commander in time of war is not a murder. Generals are still soldiers and you get to shoot them. An American sniper intentionally killed two British generals at the Battle of Saratoga which clearly won the battle and saved the Revolution.

    If you accept the rhetoric that we are “at war with global terrorism” then it is “okay” to kill them where we find them. If Quds is a terrorist organization, then we would naturally want to kill its commander. Please take note of the quotes. I don’t necessarily agree with those statements. I’m just pointing out the logic being followed.

    Morality has never been an important factor in foreign policy for the US, Russia or China or Iran or anyone else in the region. It is a grand Kabuki. The real chess game is going on behind the scenes.


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