Published June 17, 2002
After the abrupt end of the Persian Gulf War, which unfortunately left Hussein in power, some Washington insiders openly called for dealing with him “with extreme prejudice,” a euphemism for assassination in the 1970s. George Bernard Shaw once called assassination “an extreme form of censorship.” Indeed it is, but would it be an effective and justifiable way to clear the way for a more responsible regime in Baghdad?
Virtually everyone in the West and many Middle Eastern leaders would be happy to see Hussein disappear. He has used chemical weapons against his own people, overrun Kuwait and threatened Saudi oil fields. If one believes in justifiable tyrannicide, certainly Hussein qualifies.
Yet killing a hated and dangerous tyrant raises troubling moral, political and tactical questions. Should we resort to it?
The severe tactical and political limits of assassination, even when the moral issue seems clear, are underscored by the failure to eliminate the 20th century’s most brutal tyrants–Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung.
Turning to our hemisphere, President Kennedy, chafing under the Bay of Pigs disaster in Cuba, was determined to eliminate Fidel Castro. His efforts failed, and a brazen Castro is still in power.
JFK’s misadventure and congressional criticism of CIA covert action abroad eventually led to President Ford’s executive order banning any direct U.S. efforts to assassinate a foreign leader. But this vague ban has not closed the book on a vexing issue.
Abraham Lincoln, himself the tragic victim of an assassin’s bullet, offered some cautionary advice. Invoking the American Revolution, he asserted the right of any people to overthrow a tyrannical regime by violent means, including, by inference, the assassination of its leader. But he also warned that “it is the duty of our government to neither foment, nor assist, such revolutions in other governments.”
His views on permissible tyrannicide stem from the Judeo-Christian “just war” doctrine that supports the use of lethal force against evil men but requires a just intention, appropriate tactics and the reasonable prospect for a just outcome. Just consequences is the most difficult test because of multiple factors in all human events.
U.S. policymakers and the exile opposition groups seeking to eliminate Hussein hope that a reasonably free Iraq will emerge, one permitting relative autonomy to the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south. But a violent end for Hussein may yield a fragmented state, with factions squabbling over a share of benefits from Iraqi oil. And the U.S. would hardly be willing to provide a large occupation force to stabilize the country.
The Iraqi people deserve a humane regime, and the world would be less dangerous without Hussein. Theoretically, assassination may be a timely and just answer. Yet, as Lincoln insisted, the deadly deed should be done by the people who have suffered most–in this case, the Iraqis.
At the very least, history and ethics suggest that Washington should not be directly involved in eliminating Hussein “with extreme prejudice.” The Iraqis must liberate themselves.
Meanwhile, we should continue our current political, economic and military policies designed to hobble, if not defang, Baghdad’s capacity to do further mischief.