US President Donald Trump’s recent decision to assassinate top Iranian military leader Qassim Suleimani has brought the US back into the business of killing foreign leaders.
This is not just about Trump, but about what the United States wishes to stand for. This unconscionable killing has haunting echoes of a particularly sordid part of US foreign policy.
A little flashback is in order.
In 1975, a US Senate investigative committee presented a report after a 16-month investigation. To their shock and horror, Americans learned that their government had been involved in assassinations of foreign leaders, toppling governments and spying on their own people.
The Church Committee investigation, named after the eponymous Senator Frank Church, Democrat of Idaho, revealed that the US was in the business of murdering foreign leaders. It was implicated in assassination attempts on iconic Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and Chilean military chief Rene Schneider. Its attempts to murder Cuban leader Fidel Castro bordered on the bizarre. This included attempts to use a poisoned pen, a poisoned cigar and a femme fatale. US intelligence even got into bed with the Mafia members of organised crime.
The upshot of all of this was an executive order from a chastened President Gerald Ford in 1976 banning assassination.
Two points need to be made. One is the enormously odd spectacle of an ostensibly civilised nation having to tell itself: “Hey, we can’t go about killing leaders we don’t like.” Seriously? How can a nation have any pretence of a being a civilised nation and conduct extrajudicial killings abroad?
The second point is even more depressing. It turns out that the self-evident notion that it is simply not okay to go about killing foreign leaders is, well, not so self-evident in the US after all. For a country which likes to think of itself as the global policeman, what’s so shocking is the lack of unanimity regarding the essential lawlessness of foreign murder.
Critics of the Suleimani assassination appear more concerned about the lack of Congressional oversight than the heinous nature of the act itself. Then there are the supporters, who go off in a frothed frenzy about how awful he was.
But that’s neither here or there.
Somebody needs to grab these people by the scruff of their necks and shake some sense into them by pointing out that respect for international law should be based on the same principle underlying support for the rule of law at home. When you have a suspect, who appears to have committed the most heinous crimes, despite enormous public outrage, you do not go ahead and kill him in a fit of vigilante rage. You give the person a proper trial and ensure that guilt is proven in a court of law. The process may be imperfect, but this is the crucial distinction between a nation ruled by law and one ruled by the laws of the jungle.
This self-evident truth is just as valid in international affairs. The US, however, has veered from this principle time and again. This did not start with Trump.
The administration of US President Barack Obama took out Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011. There was never any indication that the US had made any attempts to get him to a court of law, the way the Israelis did with Nazi killer Adolf Eichmann in 1960.
Despite an early warning of its dangers, Obama, an expert of constitutional law, also approved drone killings, which often went horrendously wrong. Just before he was about to take office, one drone attack in Pakistan on a funeral killed an estimated 41 people. The drone killings remain one of Obama’s more disturbing legacies.
Conor Friedersdorf pointed this out in an article in The Atlantic, quoting Naureen Shah of Amnesty International: “What’s so interesting is that President Obama acknowledges this problem—that future presidents will be empowered to kill globally, and in secret. What he doesn’t acknowledge is how much of a role his administration had in making that a bizarre normal…What we’ll be left with from the Obama administration is a far more dangerous precedent of secret, global killings than what we started with.”
The distinction Obama made—and presumably Trump supporters would make in the case of the killing of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the self-declared caliph of Islamic State, is that the US was engaged with non-state actors, and there was no international legal framework to take on these rogues.
This argument is not entirely without merit. The bigger danger, however, is that once a nation engages in foreign extrajudicial killings, it gets on a slippery slope that leads to situations that are legally untenable.
Qassim Suleimani was a highly placed official in a legitimate government with which the US was not engaged in war. The US says it has the right to take out any bad actor if it perceives an imminent threat. Yet any evidence of that imminent threat posed by Suleimani has been as ephemeral as that of the mythical weapons of mass destruction used to launch the illegal 2003 war against Iraq by US President George W Bush.
It’s a little early to anticipate the international fallout following the assassination. Both Iran’s response with missile attacks on US bases in Iraq, and Trump’s response to it, have been mercifully restrained, given the explosive, provocative nature of the US assassination.
The broader context is far less reassuring. There is no question that the US assassination has left in its wake a world that is far more dangerous, lawless and violent.
Ashfaque Swapan is a contributing editor for Siliconeer, a digital daily for South Asians in the United States.