Assassination as a Foreign Policy

The Boston Globe today (September 16, 2011) has this story about a debate within the Obama administration. The debate topic is when it’s OK for the US to assassinate people in other countries, primarily through attacks by remote-controlled aircraft, the so-called “drones.”

The claim that any such strikes are justified by international law is nonsense. Remember all those old Western movies where the Native Americans, fleeing a bunch of soldiers bent on killing them, fled over the border to Canada – and the soldiers halted in their tracks? That’s because military incursion into another country is illegal – unless you have that country’s permission. The US has such permission from Afghanistan. In Pakistan, the government ordered us to stop all drone attacks, and we announced that we would ignore them. And we have no permission in Yemen (although there is tacit cooperation from the government there), and least of all in Somalia.

That doesn’t mean that the US has to sit idle while terrorists prepare to attack us; but there are established legal ways to respond. We can demand that the government of the state where the terrorists are located take action. We can offer aid to that government. And, if we don’t get results, we can declare war on them and, if we win, occupy the country and act on our own. (That’s what we did in Afghanistan, except that the declaration of war was missing.) But there is no legal right to simply kill people in another country because they are “likely” members of al-Qaeda.

Why is this important? Because international law provides a way for disputes to be settled peaceably most of the time, and to limit the conflict when they can’t be settled peaceably. Right now, the rulers of the US – not only Obama, but Bush and Clinton before him – believe that the US is so powerful that we can simply ignore the law. Unfortunately, that path leads to a chaotic world, one more dangerous than one where the norms of law prevail.

One side maintains that the US has the legal right to try to kill known leaders of al-Qaeda in other countries (specifically, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, though the claim is more general). Those guys are the liberal side of the argument – the ‘doves,’ I guess.

The other side says that it’s OK to kill a bunch of people even if their identity is unknown, as long as they are in some place that suggests they may be associated with al-Qaeda. As the Globe phrases it, this involves attacks “aimed at killing clusters of people whose identities are not known but who are deemed likely members of a militant group based on patterns like training in terrorist camps.” Note the word “likely.” And note that the example used here, terrorist training, is chosen to make the killing look good. Other examples have included attacks on weddings, attacks on houses inhabited by large extended families, and even attacks on people standing around in the street. Large numbers of civilians with no connection to al-Qaeda or other terrorist organizations have been killed by these strikes.