Assassination, Gaddafi, and Bin Laden

Instapundit recently posted about how there has been general support for the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. Being involved in assassinations is a tricky area for the United States, particularly since we were implicated in some nefarious activity back in the 1950s through the 1970s (see the Church Committee report of 1975). Here how this has played out in recent days:

1. The recent attack on Gaddafi was intended to kill the Libyan leader. This is not the first time the US has attempted this with the earlier efforts coming in a bombing attack in 1986. This would seem to fit the classic definition of assassination: the killing of a foreign leader when his actions against the United States were not part of a larger war.

2. The recent killing of Bin Laden is being called an assassination by some but doesn’t seem to be in the same category. Bin Laden was not a political leader and I’m sure he had been named something like an “enemy combatant” by the United States. Because he was killed as part of a war effort (the “war on terror”) and he wasn’t a politician, this isn’t really an assassination. The problem comes in here when the media talks about assassinations as any attack on a prominent person. Not all such attacks are assassinations.

In both of these cases, people have made the argument that killing “the head” of the organization (al Qaeda or Libya) would be better than fighting a more traditional war. Perhaps so – but such actions might be against international law (see a quick discussion of the ambiguities here). And whether the killing of one person actually gets rid of larger, structural problems is another matter (witness the case of Iraq and the death of Saddam Hussein).

I recently thought of an example that illustrates some of the problems with assassinations or “targeted killings”: imagine that a foreign leader called for the killing of President Obama because of US actions around the world. I imagine that we would be fairly outraged: how dare another country threaten our voted-in leader. But is this much different than NATO leaders openly discussing killing Gaddafi?