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Gulf War II didn't quite start like one of those John Wayne or Ronald Reagan WWII movies where the hero prevails against overwhelming odds -- and a cast of thousands of Japanese or Nazis -- to secure Democracy and save the heroine. In our newest conflict, the Bush administration had already used its overwhelming military forces and high-tech weaponry to surround a third-rate, third-world dictatorship. Then it opted to kick off the affair with an impromptu aerial assault on a suburban Baghdad residence.
The game plan: Obliterate the top Iraqi political and military leaders at the onset.
Before it gets to the big screen, Gulf War II may need script writers from Adaptation to bring reality in line with the expected Hollywood ideal of guns, guts and glory. Chivalrous and heroic it's not, but blowing up enemy leaders with remote-controlled bombs or missiles is now standard operating procedure -- at least in the modern world, where only the one remaining superpower (ours truly) has the necessary gadgetry to pull it off.
The conduct of war has certainly come a long way from the courtly set-piece battles of the Middle Ages. Rulers sat on hilltops, ate gourmet picnic lunches under colorful tarps and watched their distant, antlike armies engage in combat with clearly defined codes of behavior. Nowadays, the U.S. commander in chief can dial up a weapons menu, issue the orders, and -- if the electronic gods are willing -- "leadership decapitation" and "regime change" follow within hours. If only our policymakers were as smart as our bombs.
War planners can now daydream how the Vietnam war might have been altered if the United States could have targeted Ho Chi Minh and the North Vietnamese leadership for removal by surgical air strike. Or imagine a cruise missile dropping in uninvited on an Adolf Hitler dinner party to avert the horrors of the holocaust.
World leaders traditionally have been wary of killing their peers. That's partly out of respect for the time-tested principle that what goes around can come around, and partly out of a technical inability to carry out the deed. But squeamishness aside, there's nothing in international law against offing heads of state in wartime.
Jordan Paust, co-director of the University of Houston's International Law Institute, explains that anyone in a country's chain of command -- from peon to prince -- is fair game in war. The U.S. can legally blow Iraqi leaders to smithereens, and Iraq would be within its rights to attempt a counterstrike.
"Our president and Saddam Hussein are both commanders in chief of the military," says Paust. "You can target the head of state, and in fact that's where the firepower should be directed. This war could be over if we take out the top military leadership. And in reverse, our secretary of defense and our president are lawful military targets in a war." The professor believes that even congressional leadership would fall into the category of targets sanctioned by international law.
Paust says that throughout World War II the United States insisted on that principle, which is embodied in a 1907 treaty, the Hague Convention No. 4. That document also prohibits "treacherous killing" of leaders, interpreted to mean assassination in peacetime.
"All over the world," says the professor, "military lawyers know that the selective targeting of officers in a unit, all the way up to the commander in chief, is not assassination."
Sometimes strategy dictates that enemy leadership be left alive just to have somebody around for negotiations to end a war, notes Paust. That doesn't apply to Hussein, since U.S. tacticians view his disappearance as an essential element in expediting the collapse of resistance.
A declaration of war isn't even necessary to kill government leaders, says Paust, citing Reagan's orders for the bombing of Libyan strongman Mu'ammar Gadhafi's residence in the mid-'80s. Never mind that the stated justification, the bombing of a German disco frequented by U.S. military personnel, was later pinned on a Syrian-sponsored group.
Even though no war was declared on Libya, Paust says, all the customary laws of war applied. "In effect, it was a 30-minute war. As soon as U.S. aircraft crossed into Libyan airspace, you're at war."
Nonmilitary elements, like a civilian sniper, cannot kill an opposing chief of state during a war and claim the cover of international law, according to the lawyer. The attacker must have military status, as opposed to belonging to an intelligence service like the CIA.
The United States clouded the issue after taking Taliban fighters prisoner during the Afghanistan invasion. U.S. officials refused to grant them military status, claiming they were not in uniform or serving an existing government. "They certainly were enemy combatants when we started that war on October 7," counters Paust.
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has also stretched the definition of a military target. In response to suicide bombers, Israel has used military units to pursue leaders of groups such as Hamas, even though some of those leaders claimed to have strictly political roles.
"Some of the things the Israelis are doing are absolute war crimes," contends Paust, citing the retaliatory bulldozing of homes of terrorists' relatives. "That's a very serious violation of the 1949 Geneva Conventions and what we call collective punishment." Likewise, says the professor, military targeting of Palestinians whose political and military roles are ambiguous "is getting over on the continuum to impermissible assassinations." Palestinian suicide attacks on civilians, on the other hand, constitute open-and-shut cases of mass murder.