Assassinations

January 21, 2012 6:30 AM

We have been following the Republican presidential candidates’ positions on North Korea.  Mitt Romney and Ron Paul have dedicated constituencies and are presumably in for the long haul; Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum risk getting voted off the island later today in South Carolina.

As Steph Haggard previously observed, Gingrich recently got on the Santorum bandwagon, in one respect at least, advocating the assassination of North Korean scientists working on the Iranian nuclear program.

So it was serendipitous that an essay on targeted assassinations by Damien D. Cheong published by RSIS in Singapore landed in my inbox this morning:

Pre-emptive self-defense is often cited by the perpetrating state as the basis for carrying out such attacks. However, such justification often contravenes and/or conflicts with international legal, ethical, moral and human rights standards….While there is evidence to suggest that target assassinations are effective in managing national security threats in certain contexts, the perpetrating state must still evaluate if the targeted state or terrorist group is capable of carrying out reprisals, and more importantly, if those reprisals actually increase rather than decrease national security threats…Despite its intended effects, targeted assassinations do not always guarantee a favorable change in behavior on the part of the state or terrorist group. Apart from provoking possible reprisals/revenge on the perpetrators, targeted assassinations can increase recalcitrance or defiance on the part of the targeted state or group. For instance Iran has vowed to continue developing its controversial nuclear program despite assassinations.

Assuming that the targeted state or group has the capability of carrying out their own targeted assassination campaigns (no matter how unsophisticated), a contemporary ‘War of the Spooks’ could occur…It the targeted state or group does not possess the capabilities to carry out its own targeted assassination campaign, it might utilize other retaliatory tactics that could be non-violent in nature. A cyberattack would be the most likely response as the overall risks to the attacker are low.

That the assassinated Iranian scientists were all civilians, and that they were killed in their own country by either foreign and/or local operatives, is particularly worrisome. This is because the targeting of civilians implies that state terrorism is justifiable, and if so, can be used by other states as well…In light of the reprisals and possible consequences of employing targeted assassinations as statecraft, states must carefully evaluate it their use actually minimizes national security threats. From a military viewpoint, targeted assassinations are highly effective in reducing national security threats. However, when a broader view of national security is taken, the answer is not as apparent.

The possibility of retaliation against the civilian populace does not appear to be entirely fanciful. Iran was recently implicated in an alleged plot to kill the Saudi ambassador here in Washington, possibly by blowing up a popular local restaurant that the ambassador is known to frequent. For what it is worth, denunciations of civilian deaths in US drone attacks in Pakistan are a staple of the North Korean official news agency, KCNA.

Maybe Romney will be next onboard the assassination bandwagon.  Those who watched him in the first of this week’s two debates saw him throw advisor Mitch Reiss under the bus. Now Politico reports that former UN Ambassador John Bolton is ascendant in the Romney campaign.

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Marcus Noland Senior Research Staff

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