The welcome end of Osama bin Laden at the hands of helicopter-borne American military commandos raises a number of issues.
Americans rejoiced at news of the end of this psychopathic mass murderer, and, privately, are probably relieved that he was not captured and extradited to Guantanamo. If bin Laden had been taken alive, we might be revisiting the controversy surrounding the Obama administration’s failed efforts to try in a civilian federal court bin Laden’s subordinate, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — the master planner behind 9/11.
But what, exactly, are the moral, legal, or practical rules in going after terrorist leaders or the savage dictators of rogue regimes? We went into a foreign country to kill, not capture, bin Laden. Was that killing permissible since a firefight preceded it, or because he was a terrorist rather than a head of state?
Furor surrounded the waterboarding of Mohammed that purportedly resulted in valuable intelligence about future terrorist operations. But why was that considered immoral and illegal when we routinely act as judge, jury, and executioner of suspected terrorists through Predator drone attacks inside Pakistan?
Mohammed, a confessed killer, was one of just three detainees waterboarded. In contrast, we have executed from the air well over 1,500 suspected terrorists by Predators. President Obama has ordered four times as many drone attacks in the last two years as former president Bush did in eight. Are those killings more constitutionally suspect than Bush’s treatment of the three terrorists at Guantanamo?
Last week, NATO warplanes deliberately targeted Moammar Qaddafi’s family compound and residence in Tripoli, purportedly killing the dictator’s youngest son, Saif. A surviving son, also named Saif, not long ago was a Western darling who bought a doctorate from the London School of Economics, and wined and dined Western intellectuals and oil executives. At what point do dictators’ sons devolve from darlings to demons?
The United States had just days earlier sent two Predator drones to Libya — no doubt to help the British and French focus their attacks on the Qaddafi family. Are such targeted airborne assassinations the type of killings expressly forbidden by U.S. law? Or are they permissible on the grounds that enemy dictators are military commanders — and their fortified homes are thus legitimate wartime targets?
Could we then legally, morally, or practically drop a team in Tripoli to kill Qaddafi and his son in the manner that we killed bin Laden and his son? What are the rules that govern the killing of enemy leaders?
First, it seems okay to assassinate a terrorist kingpin either by air attack or commando raid. But legal and moral problems arise if he is captured, detained, waterboarded, or tried in a military tribunal. A quick death seems to end almost all legal discussions and controversies.
Second, there is also no problem in assassinating a foreign dictator as long as the mission meets two criteria: We must be engaged in some sort of conventional battle with his forces, and we have to kill him through aerial bombing. For some reason, vaporization by a bomb seems to raise fewer ethical issues than execution by a sniper’s bullet.
Third, targeted assassinations are better done under liberal presidents, who are more likely to be seen as humanitarians who only reluctantly order such killings. The Bush antiterrorism protocols — tribunals, renditions, preventative detentions, Predator assassination missions, Guantanamo Bay — were decried as illegal and immoral. Such furor vanished, however, when President Obama embraced or expanded them all. The effort to preemptively remove the mass-murdering Saddam Hussein to foster democracy in his absence was seen by many in the media, universities, and the legal community as morally wrong — and yet preemptively bombing Qaddafi to foster democracy in his absence is now considered morally justified.
Fourth, success seems to end moral ambiguity in much the same way as failure invites it. Had we gone into Pakistani territory and landed in the wrong compound, legal and ethical issues would have been raised. If we keep killing members of the Qaddafi family without hitting Qaddafi himself, at some point the denial of targeted assassination will seem empty. Targeted assassinations apparently have to work on the first or second attempt to be deemed moral and legal.
In recent years, the United States has been in a number of undeclared wars against terrorists, insurgents, and authoritarian dictators — Mohamed Farrah Aidid, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Slobodan Milosevic, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Manuel Noriega, Mullah Omar, Moammar Qaddafi, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and others — whom we sought to kill, capture, or put on trial.
It is about time that we clarified the rules that determine their fates.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern. © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.