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Target Saddam: the dangers of war by assassination

Sunday, April 13, 2003

When they prepared an air raid on Libya in 1986, a special reward for a regime that had taken up random murder and terror as a mainstay of its foreign policy, members of the Reagan administration sketched out a brief statement.

Never released, the declaration said that while they had not set out to kill Moammar Gadhafi, the death of the Libyan leader was "fortuitous." Gadhafi, of course, did not die in the raid. His 15-month-old daughter did. Despite the unambiguous implication of blowing up a family residence and killing one of the kids, Reagan and his aides insisted they had not directly targeted Libya's head of state.

"We don't murder people," said Robert McFarlane, the former national security adviser the administration hurried onto Sunday talk shows.

The short message was this: You don't kill the other team's captain because they might take it as license to kill yours.

As American troops hover at the perimeter of a Delphic crater in Baghdad, waiting for it to cough up word about Saddam Hussein, it is well to consider the implications of a war that began with an attempted hit on a head of state and closing with the fearful symmetry of a second try. No one in his right mind doubts that Iraq is a better place when Saddam's smithereens are scattered across it, but in a world in which war is now a means of regime change and the vagaries of right and wrong are decided by who has smarter bombs, political scientists had better head straight to the lab to graph the trajectory of this one.

The attempt to kill Gadhafi came in the twilight of an America that still believed warfare had certain gentlemanly rules, and that terrorists and their sponsors were to be treated as criminals to be hunted down, put into the dock, and served with paperwork. It was an impractical idea because it is a very American principle that law enforcement agencies not be trained to conduct war and that our armed forces must never become our police.

But here we are, 17 years after we knocked over Gadhafi's tent, with stateless warriors such as Osama bin Laden sending our own airplanes into buildings and the crew of a B-1 bomber brought to a press conference to discuss their very personal assignment of killing a national leader after the fashion of some post-game show. The disquieting thing about initially naming the attack on Afghanistan "Operation Infinite Justice" seems less to do with offending Muslims and everything to do with the conflation of military might with law enforcement.

In a very technical sense, the attempt to kill Saddam is legal. But it skates close enough to the edge of good judgment to raise important alarms.

The first one is what it will do to a democratic society. We are not talking about the high-minded rhetoric of Independence Day ceremonies here, but the very gritty reality that even for a nation that does not accept the moral relativism of treating all ideas as equally good, we are stuck with a world that does.

France and Russia did not come along in this latest adventure because they have their own interests at stake, notably outstanding oil contracts with Iraq. That they deal with pigs is irrelevant to commerce. The problem is that the rest of the world applies the rules of commerce and warfare equally and might sense a change in the mores of warfare and think it perfectly reasonable to expect one state to kill another's leader.

In Europe, where murder as a tool of politics is as old as Romanov bones, this will mean little. But in the United States, a place in which everyone is from somewhere else and we all look different and, hence, slightly suspicious to one another, it is another step toward the fearful isolation of those who govern from those who are ruled.

The second profound concern is whether setting out, at the beginning of a war, to kill the national leader, somehow steps around the rules in a way that will allow future aggressors to target our president, then, as an afterthought, justify it as an act of war.

Consider the fact that while Congress wrote George W. Bush a largely blank check to take such military actions as he deems fit for national security, we did not and still do not have a formal declaration of war with Iraq. Can we kill their supreme commander with a first strike?

One of the modern standards of a justifiable targeting of an individual in time of war was the April 18, 1943, downing of a Japanese military aircraft carrying Admiral Yamamoto. American intelligence had learned Yamamoto would be flying on that craft and Pentagon officials gave the go-ahead to shoot it down specifically to kill Yamamoto. But the United States was in a declared war with Japan and Yamamoto had already planned and carried out an audacious and unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor, killing thousands of American soldiers and sailors. In the days leading up to the cruise missile bombardment on one of Saddam's hideouts, the closest thing to a U.S. case that Saddam had targeted us was a 1993 plot to murder former President George H.W. Bush during a visit to Kuwait.

That very personal dynamic threatens to leave the world with the impression that the second Gulf war was a battle between sovereign families. Even Europe has managed to leave that one behind.

Last week ended with American troops mobbed in Baghdad by people grateful, very personally so, for the end of Saddam's regime. That they did not know the whereabouts of their erstwhile dictator seemed to matter little because, in the end, a war of liberation -- and this is what it became for the average Iraqi -- turns more on the presence of the liberator than the absence of the tyrant. That is how wars of liberation should be fought.

A plausible and persuasive case can be made that Saddam was a justifiable military target for our bombs. But in a world of nations that insist on moral equivalencies in all things, it turns our own leaders into the same and threatens the egalitarian and open character of American society. Here's hoping that in future adventures, the administration will hear the whereabouts of some other monster, get the coordinates and some wise head will reply, "Great idea. Forget it."

Dennis Roddy is a Post-Gazette columnist droddy@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1965.

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