Let me propose an unpleasant thought experiment: Maybe America should try to kill Bashar al-Assad?
I can think of a few objections. The first is that the United States shouldn’t be in the business of targeted assassinations. But, of course, the United States is in the business of targeted assassinations. Last week, an American drone killed a senior al Qaeda official named Abu Yahya al-Libi, to widespread public acclaim.
Sure, you say, but al-Libi was part of a network that seeks to kill Americans. Assad is just butchering his own people. But the United States has made it pretty clear—especially under President Obama—that we are willing to kill in order to stop regimes from butchering their own people. In tandem with our European allies, we did so in Bosnia in 1995, Kosovo in 1999, Libya in 2011, and many wish we had done so in Rwanda in 1994 as well.
Fine, you say, but there’s an executive order against assassinating heads of state. That’s true, but we don’t exactly abide by it. During the Cold War, the United States helped orchestrate coups that led to the deaths of South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem and Chile’s Salvador Allende. The Bush administration launched the 2003 Iraq War with a decapitation strike aimed at killing Saddam Hussein. And whether or not the United States had a hand in Muammar Gaddafi’s death last fall, it was the predictable—and perhaps desired—result of the war we launched.
But doesn’t assassinating foreign leaders set a worrisome precedent? If we can kill Bashar al-Assad, what’s to stop the Syrian government from trying to kill Barack Obama? We might ask the same question about the sanctions we impose and the wars we launch. The point is that the U.S. violates other countries’ sovereignty in all kinds of ways we wouldn’t appreciate if they did it to us. And the reason they don’t is not because they lack a precedent; it’s because they lack the power.
In fact, it’s hard to discern any principle that distinguishes killing Assad from the targeted assassinations and humanitarian wars that command significant American political support. A key principle of just-war theory is the principle of discrimination: You should tailor your violence as narrowly as possible. Some justify drone strikes on exactly those grounds: They hurt fewer people than the full-scale invasions the U.S. launched in Afghanistan and Iraq. The same principle applies to sanctions: Most people would agree that sanctions that target a ruling elite are preferable to ones that affect an entire people. If that’s the case, then why isn’t it preferable to target Assad personally instead of bombing Syrian conscripts, or Syrian civilians, in order to bring down his regime?
Let me be clear: I’m not proposing that we try to kill Assad, nor even that we outsource the job to a local ally like Jordan. For one thing, it might not do much good. Syria is ruled less by Bashar al-Assad himself than by an Alawite clique willing to commit terrible crimes because they like the perquisites of power and fear for their community’s safety if they give up that power. Kill Assad, and some brother, cousin or allied general might take over where he left off.
But the larger question is how far we’re willing to go in prioritizing American security interests and humanitarian ideals over national sovereignty and international law. Given how far America has moved in that direction in recent years, trying to assassinate Bashar al-Assad doesn’t seem radical at all.