Assassination as a Tool of Foreign Policy

A few recent conversations led me to think I would post some thoughts (based on an old 2005 blog of mine) and let you know what your opinions are.

1. Morality:Assassination by government-sponsored forces is in essence a war crime. It’s an effort to change another country’s foreign policy through military force. However, an assassination seems more morally justifiable than an invasion. It would be an odd morality that allowed the killing of enemy soldiers, many of whom are personally morally innocent, but forbade the killing of their commander-in-chief—or even ostensibly civilian leaders of the enemy government—who may be morally culpable indeed.

Idi amin was eventually forced from power due to a Tanzanian invasion. This was in response to a Ugandan invasion, though it would have been justifiable even without this. It would have been great if the Tanzanians and others had stopped Amin from killing his family by assassinating Amin.

This is true for all tyrants. However, it does not apply to every leader. Assassinations are also unjustifiable in certain situations. Assassinations can be morally superior to many other war acts, but they are morally no worse than any of them.

I have left out for the purposes of this post any questions regarding whether or not such assassinations are in violation of domestic or international law. The “morality” question is about whether or not they’re wrong. We can presumably change executive orders or withdraw from treaties that we find too restrictive. You can find information on one side of this legal issue here.

Note that I use the term “assassinate” because I don’t want to sugarcoat what would be happening—the deliberate killing of a particular person. If you feel that assassinate inherently connotes improperly deliberate killing or has a specific legal meaning that excludes legitimate killing, then mentally replace “assassinate” throughout the post with “targeted murder.”

2. Practicality:It seems that the main problems associated with assassination are practical.

First, assassination will only do so much—it will remove one person, but it may see him replaced with someone who is equally bad, or it may lead to a bloody fight for succession, which may yield more deaths of innocents than the tyrant was responsible for. Brutus: How did you get to your position as “sic semper tyrannis”) in the Julius Caesar assassination?

A humanitarian will want to ensure that assassination does more good than harm, especially if it is being done in humanitarian circumstances. An invasion can be a safer way to achieve your goals in many situations (though it may not always).

A second reason is that democracies are more at risk from increased foreign policy assassinations, than tyrannies. Foreign policy assassinations, even between countries which are very hostile, are rare to my knowledge.

This condition—perhaps a tacit understanding—is very good for democracies. Most civilian leaders of democratic governments, even those with a lot of power, tend to be soft targets, except for the highest level (e.g. President or Vice President). They can often be seen publicly and live the same as the citizens. It’s a positive thing. We would like our politicians to get to know ordinary citizens, so that they can live the same way as them. Power is more centralized in autocratic regimes, so those who hold power are able to live in bunkers and be subject to heavy guard.

A spate of assassinations on foreign policy could lead more nations (and other groups) to use this strategy. This would allow tyrants to protect their power and keep it in check. They won’t likely be deterred by assassination risk unless the risk is very high. After all, they knew that the job was dangerous and are the kind of people who can tolerate this type of risk.

But, democratic politicians could only protect themselves by taking steps to change the fundamental nature of democracy. Some democratic politicians might decide the job doesn’t pay the price. There will be those who take on the risk, of course. However, I don’t think we need that kind of self-selection effect in which politicians are increasingly taken by those who desire them so badly that they will risk their lives to obtain them.

This assumes that assassinating other leaders will cause others to do the same. However, I think this is a false assumption. Most of our potential and actual enemies don’t have a fair sense of fair play. Yet the fact is that, despite the softness of many of our targets (again, not the President or Vice President but many other important leaders), our enemies—even in past shooting wars—have not generally gone after them. It is likely that they fear retaliation from us. There was probably a little bit of a tacit arrangement there. And if my suspicions are correct, the whole thing could be renegotiated. Yes, there were violations. But sometimes, such deals can survive just a few breaches but then fall apart when the tipping point has reached.

3. Never say never: There will be exceptions to this rule. Hitler, a unique figure within Germany, was worth killing. It was also very worthwhile, even though it was hard work, as many potential German assassins discovered. If we are engaged in a larger conflict, killing high-ranking military and quasimilitary officials may prove necessary. It might also not significantly increase the chance of an escalation. It seems that assassination, although it may seem like a cheap option, can often be more costly than you think.

In any case, these are just some tentative thoughts—I’m most surely no expert on the question—and I’d love to hear what others think.