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Two Cheers (at Least) for Targeted Killings

Friday, October 14, 2011

Why the Nobel Peace Prize winner is right to assassinate terrorists.

STOCKHOLM—Here, in the shadow of the majestic Kungliga Slottet, where President Barack Obama proudly accepted the Nobel Peace Prize less than two years ago, it’s easy to forget that the president’s greatest foreign policy achievement to date, by a country mile, was the surgical strike in Abbottabad that extinguished Osama bin Laden’s wicked life.

That killing triggered a fusillade of criticism from the foreign policy Left, claiming that Obama had abandoned his Nobelite moral high ground and should, instead, have arrested bin Laden and brought him to (criminal) justice. These criticisms emerged again earlier this month when two American unmanned aerial vehicles soaring high above Yemen dispatched Hellfire missiles that wiped out Anwar al-Awlaki, the firebrand Yemen-based Islamic anti-American American cleric, along with one of his associates.

Waiting on Yemen to locate the silver-tongued extremist would have accomplished little, while sending special forces into that volatile, crumbling country to extract Awlaki would have spelled grave danger for those troops.

Many on the Left have long lamented this “targeted killing” approach for legal, ethical, and strategic reasons, while some on the right have decried the policy’s seeming neglect of the benefits of interrogation. But the solid strategic and ethical foundations of targeted killings mean they will and should be part of the executive branch’s tool kit in the Long War.

Liberals often argue that extrajudicial killings of American citizens, such as the New Mexico-born Awlaki, lack any basis in the law. However, as bloggers Ed Morrissey and Guy Benson have astutely demonstrated, Congress’s 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force expressly empowers the president to:

use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

Whether or not the “persons” plotting against the United States possess American citizenship, the president enjoys broad authority to target them in order to secure the homeland. Awlaki in particular has inspired numerous attacks against the United States—some successful, like the Fort Hood shooting, some not, like the Times Square and underwear bombers—and he richly deserved his fate, regardless of the passport he held.

Official U.S. estimates pin the number of civilians killed by U.S. drone attacks at around 30 between 2008 and 2010.

Even the famously liberal Harold Koh, the State Department’s legal adviser, has argued that extrajudicial killings are perfectly legal, so long as they comport with the traditional international legal principles of distinction and proportionality, i.e., imperiling civilian life only in a manner commensurate with the importance of the military objective.

Many progressives also claim targeted drone attacks are unethical because they result in civilian death. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem tried to persuade the Israeli government to curtail its targeted killing policy, arguing that “when an assassination is carried out through the firing of missiles from the air on a car that is traveling during the day in a crowded residential area, the chance that civilians will be harmed is almost certain.”

But in fact, targeted killings, by their very nature, claim far fewer civilian lives than the alternatives of ground operations or massive bombing campaigns. According to B’Tselem’s own data, between 2000 and 2005, Israel successfully killed 203 Palestinian terrorists in targeted operations, along with an additional 114 people in the same strikes. While B’Tselem doesn’t indicate whether these others were civilians or military hangers-on, either way, a 2:1 combatant-to-noncombatant ratio is technically and morally impressive by any measure.

Targeted killings claim far fewer civilian lives than the alternatives of ground operations or massive bombing campaigns.

And while some Pakistani sources claim U.S. drone attacks have killed more than 1,000 civilians, official U.S. estimates pin the number at around 30 between 2008 and 2010. However regrettable, these noncombatant deaths appear suitably proportional to the thousands of members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban eliminated by targeted killings.

Some liberals assert that targeted killings backfire by inspiring further attacks and escalating the proverbial “cycle of violence.” “The secretive Long War has failed to leave the United States more secure or democratic,” claimed Tom Hayden in a recent piece for The Nation syndicated by National Public Radio. The bin Laden “killing didn’t deter an attack on a Chinook that left 38 dead, including 30 Americans, among them 22 Navy Seals,” notes Hayden, “nor did the assassination of the Al Qaeda leader stop the September insurgent attacks on the U.S. embassy, NATO headquarters, and a CIA station in Kabul.” And, according to Philip Alston, a former UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, “if other states were to claim the broad-based authority that the United States does, to kill people anywhere, anytime, the result would be chaos.”

Yet Hayden and Alston are attacking a straw man: the notion that wiping out senior terrorist leadership will end the attacks once and for all, without provoking retaliation. Not even the most vigorous supporters of the targeted killing policy espouse such a radical position; nobody expects the enemy to roll over. But degrading its leadership by thinning out its uppermost ranks unquestionably disrupts its strategy, sometimes decisively so.

For instance, Israel’s National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism found that an increase in targeted killings in 2005 corresponded to a dramatic drop in the lethality of Hamas’s terror attacks. And Israeli analyst Gal Luft credits his country’s targeted killing policy with having a “profound cumulative effect” on terrorist organizations.

Hayden and Alston are attacking a straw man: the notion that wiping out senior terrorist leadership will end the attacks once and for all, without provoking retaliation.

A more substantive critique of targeted killings faults them for eliminating an opportunity to grab and grill these terror kingpins. In an essay published in a recent book on post-9/11 national security, co-editor John Yoo, the Berkeley law professor, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and former Bush Justice Department official, lambastes Obama’s failure to capture and interrogate bin Laden as allowing “one of the most valuable intelligence opportunities since the beginning of the war [to] slip … through American hands.”

It’s a fair point. According to Georgetown University professor and Brookings Institution scholar Daniel Byman, “Israeli officials are the first to say that killing is a tactic of last resort and that arresting terrorists, when possible, is a much better course. After an arrest, security forces can interrogate the suspect and learn about future plots and additional operatives, who can then be arrested too. Killing suspects prevents them from striking, but dead men also tell no tales.”

Moreover, Byman contends, the United States may have more practical opportunities to capture and interrogate terrorists than Israelis do. While Israel’s targeted killings take place in the hostile Palestinian territories, U.S. targets generally reside in at least nominally friendly locales. And “because arrest is always a better option than killing,” Byman argues, “it usually makes much more sense for the United States simply to arrange for local security services to apprehend the terrorists than to antagonize locals with extrajudicial killings.”

Even the famously liberal Harold Koh, the State Department’s legal adviser, has argued that extrajudicial killings are perfectly legal.

The problem, of course, arises when Americans cannot arrange for the locals to scoop up the bad guys, as the search for bin Laden revealed all too embarrassingly when it was discovered that the al Qaeda chieftain was residing undisturbed in a Pakistani city. America’s troubled alliance with Pakistan and its duplicitous security service is not conducive to easygoing coordination of terror sweeps. And while capturing bin Laden alive and pumping him for information may have yielded useful intelligence, it may have further threatened the lives of the SEALs who ended his.

Likewise, while the embattled Yemeni regime has generally accommodated American goals, it was unable (or unwilling) to track down Awlaki. Waiting on Yemen to locate the silver-tongued extremist would have accomplished little, while sending special forces into that volatile, crumbling country to extract Awlaki would have spelled grave danger for those troops and the surrounding civilians endangered by the heavy air power that would have had to accompany any such extraction.

Yes, U.S. policies on targeted killing could be clarified, perhaps to more closely resemble Israel’s, which Byman labels “surprisingly transparent.” And, yes, the preference should always be to capture and grill terror masterminds instead of liquidating them. But as the civilized world—including generally placid, tolerant Scandinavia—has increasingly been targeted by Islamist terror, we must continue to return fire by robustly targeting the terror masters.

Michael M. Rosen, a contributor to THE AMERICAN, is an attorney and writer in San Diego.

FURTHER READING: Rosen also writes “Patents Defended,” “Steal This F&$#ing Book!” “The Real Problem With High-Speed Rail,” and “The Real Problem with Government Employee Unions.”

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