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Bucknell, Class, Paper 2, Philosophy or Ethics, Research, Social Science, Writing

Analyzing the Use of Assassination or Targeted Killings as a Legal Foreign Policy

             In 1648, just after the Thirty Years War, the state system was developed in Europe. The international behavior of the competing European states was regulated by a simple theory consistent with the general thinking of the time: the “balance of power.” The system was used for three hundred and fifty years. At that time people belonged to unified nations and they elected a leader who was expected to support the best interests of the constituents. (Asch, 1997) With the advent of communications technology and quicker transportation; however, the world’s mindset became that of billions of people as opposed to cohesive powerful nations. With the world changing rapidly and violence on the rise, the US as the world leader must change the way we cope with threats toward our nation. Nowadays we are often at war with an individual or group of individuals, not a nation. Why wage war with innocent citizens when their brutal dictators are the true enemies? The United States desperately needs a new, legal foreign policy strategy and by eliminating Executive Order 12333 section 2.11 to allow assassinations, it can better combat our adversaries abroad.

            Back in 1648 it was vital to maintain a system that was mutually beneficial to all members of the global community. It created a legal understanding between the nation-states. (Asch, 1997) Unfortunately the present threat to our nation does not represent a country but rather rogue colonies of terrorists. Allowing assassination as a legal foreign policy will ultimately be a less violent method of combat. Nevertheless there will be those who argue that such a policy would break international law. Upon researching these laws; however, one will realize that there are no explicit restrictions on assassinations. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is a United Nations treaty often used against assassinations. It was entered into the force on March 23, 1976. Once the senate ratified the ICCPR in 1992; however, it took a very weak stance on the issue. In congressional resolution S4781-84, the senate stated that “the provisions of article 1 through 26 of the covenant are not self exalting”. This means that if our congress was to pass legislation against the ICCPR then that legislation would supersede the prior rule. Thus congress could take action today to legally permit this strategy. The second treaty used against assassination is the Hague Convention of 1899. This was among the first statements of laws on war crimes. In addition to being outdated, when one examines Section IV of this convention, it is obvious that the United States is already in violation of this treaty. This section prohibits the launching of projectiles and explosives from balloons. (Masters) Seeing that this convention is already being ignored, it is not a valid argument against assassinations. Finally, the Geneva Convention Protocol 1 prohibits attacks that rely on “Perfidy”. This vague statement is manipulated quite often by governments that simply redefine the enemies targeted by their attacks.

What one must realize is that now more than ever, Executive Order 12333 section 2.11 is being manipulated to satisfy our country’s goals. The Bush administration usurped this order after the murders of Uday and Qusai Hussein were carried out. (Bazan, CRS3) Repealing this order would allow our nation’s leaders to legitimately consider the policy. Former White House press secretary Ari Fleisher once stated “the cost of one bullet, if the Iraqi people take it on themselves, is substantially less than the cost of war”. I must agree with his words and say that although this proposal might seem inherently violent, it will actually result in fewer deaths. When a few special soldiers are seeking out one or a few corrupt leaders as opposed to bombing an entire region, naturally there will be fewer civilian and troop deaths. The estimated toll of civilian deaths in Iraq is over 100,000 people. (BBC News) This proposal would avoid unnecessary wars in countries where our enemies are the dictators and not the citizenry. The US will spend billions later to repair the dismantled nation of Iraq when we could have avoided the destruction by targeting individual leaders of the Taliban with undercover Special Forces.

US funding of its operation in Iraq 2003 to 2011

             While President Bush first pursued this tactic following September 11, 2011, the frequency of targeted assassinations has grown over the years following his second term. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) along with the Pentagon has continued to carry out these killings in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, other operations in countries like Pakistan have employed this strategy. President Obama has been a strong advocate of the controversial policy during his first term. His foreign policy while in office has focused largely on drone attacks and capture missions of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The US Navy SEAL kill and capture mission for Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan is proof of how the strategy can avoid civilian deaths. That being said, US-Pakistani relations following the strike experienced heightened tensions. While the White House and others tout these types of missions as successes, others question the tactics from legal and ethical perspectives. While I will later examine the ethical question, the legal challenges could be quickly reversed.   There is no indication that these assassinations will dwindle in the coming years as new technologies are introduced. Furthermore, the recession has decreased and ability and desire for our country to balance multiple wars at one time. President Obama’s cuts to the defense budget in 2013 are further proof of a military model that is smaller in size and more tactical. Despite the many aforementioned benefits to this foreign policy strategy, the chart below demonstrates how many attacks go unreported and result in civilian casualties. (McKelvey)


            This serves as an appropriate transition to discuss the use of assassination as a foreign policy from an ethical perspective. I selected Donaldson and Hartman’s remarks on rights and corporate obligations. The same type of reasoning can be applied in the context of government and its duties to its citizens and the global community. There is an obvious ethical dilemma here. The US government and military often plays an active role in the lives of people all over the world. Some would argue that despite this role, neither regularly assumes any social responsibility with regards to foreign policy. According to ethicists like Hartman and Donaldson, they must assume certain duties because of this role. In order to become more ethically driven, the US government and military must acknowledge and abide by the four correlative duties presented by Hartman and Donaldson. Part of this reasoning is the understanding that not acting is to act immorally. This could support the policy of assassinations if it is determined that the value of such a policy is greater than not acting at all.  The US government and military has a responsibility to their shareholders; this includes the communities impacted by drone strikes and kill/ capture missions. According to Hartman’s article Donaldson on Rights & Corporate Obligations, the US government and military has four correlative duties which are founded upon affordability fairness condition. A duty is defined in the article as a justified entitlement to something from someone. The four correlative duties are; the duty to avoid depriving people of their rights, the duty to help protect people from such deprivation, the duty to aid those who are deprived, and avoiding helping to deprive. Each of the duties is subject to the affordability condition. This condition claims that if an individual or corporation cannot fulfill duties as a result of affordability restraints, than they do not have the obligation to do what they cannot. One could argue that this is the case for the US government and military. As our country faces a deep recession and attempts to climb out of debt, less military spending is a necessity. Therefore, an all out war like those in Iraq and Afghanistan is not sustainable for our country and is not a duty of the military.  Hartman states: “The corporation has the resources to respond to stakeholder’s rights and, in view of what normal activities are, may fairly be expected to do so”(Freeman, 164).  The first duty does not allow the US government to violate human rights. One might argue that civilian deaths from targeted killing missions would fall into this category. The US government cannot ignore human rights violations, if they are occurring. The previous figure referencing drone strike reports shows that the Obama administration has ignored occurrences where the strikes didn’t go as planned. The relationship between this situation and the assassination policy is quite complex. It could be said that targeting these terrorist leaders is avoiding depriving people of their rights, protecting people from this deprivation, and aiding the deprived because the regimes they are targeting often deprive the people near them. It could also be said that they are avoiding helping to deprive by not affiliating with groups like the Taliban. Nevertheless, one could argue that when targeted killing strikes go wrong, they further deprive and violate all of these duties by causing further death. Finally, a comparison between a full war and these assassinations would find less deprivation with the targeted attacks. So; does this make targeted killings ethical?

In a time when the United States is suffering from a deep recession, a growing debt, and experiencing high unemployment, an alteration in our foreign policy could be a critical move. Legalizing targeted killing would justify the strategy in legal terms. After that step is taken, upon close examination of the policy, the ethical argument could be made that targeted killings avoid depriving, help protect from deprivation, aid the deprived, and help to protect from depriving better than full war. Admittedly there are still concerns. That being said; does no US involvement deprive more than the deprivation sponsored by localized terrorist organizations?


Asch, Ronald G. The Thirty Years War: The Holy Roman Empire and Europe, 1618-48. New York: St. Martin’s, 1997. Print.

Bazan, Elizabeth. “Assassination Ban and E.O. 12333: A Brief Summary.” CRS Report for Congress (2002): CRS 1-RS 6. Federation of American Scientists. Congressional Research Service, 4 Jan. 2002. Web. 02 Apr. 2012. <http://www.fas.org/irp/crs/RS21037.pdf&gt;.

Canestaro, Nathan. “AMERICAN LAW AND POLICY ON ASSASSINATIONS OF FOREIGN LEADERS: THE PRACTICALITY OF MAINTAINING THE STATUS QUO.” Boston College. Boston College International & Comparative Law Review, 2003. Web. 09 Apr. 2012. <http://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/schools/law/lawreviews/journals/bciclr/26_1/01_FMS.htm&gt;.

Freeman, R. Edward. Business Ethics: The State of the Art. New York: Oxford UP, 1991. Print.

“Iraq War in Figures.” BBC News. BBC, 14 Dec. 2011. Web. 02 Apr. 2012. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-11107739&gt;.

Masters, Jonathan. “Targeted Killings.” Council on Foreign Relations Intelligence. Council on Foreign Relations, 6 Mar. 2012. Web. 02 Apr. 2012. <http://www.cfr.org/intelligence/targeted-killings/p9627&gt;.

McKelvey, Tara. “Covering Obama’s Secret War : CJR.” Covering Obama’s Secret War. Columbia Journalism Review, May-June 2011. Web. 02 Apr. 2012. <http://www.cjr.org/feature/covering_obamas_secret_war.php?page=all&gt;.



I am a Senior Management major at Bucknell University. I am currently living in Orlando, FL but moved around a lot as a child as an Army Brat. I am looking to go into Finance following graduation. If that doesn't work out, I am considering moving to Washington D.C. and doing political work for a period of time.


5 thoughts on “Analyzing the Use of Assassination or Targeted Killings as a Legal Foreign Policy

  1. Joey – I really liked your paper topic and enjoyed reading it more. I think that your use of Donaldson and Hartman is spot on and I think its great how you made your blog post interactive with the poll at the end. My question to you is this, you focus on the United States as the aggressor in the situation, do you think your analysis would change if a different country was in the place of the United States?

    Posted by Dana Silverstein | April 11, 2012, 3:26 pm
  2. Dana, that is a very good question. To be honest, I think it probably would. I think for some people it would be different for any country other than the US, especially if the US was the target. For me, I think my analysis would change only for certain countries, if the US was the victim. I think the basis of my arguments is pretty consistent across the board; however, intentions can change context and should be considered.

    Posted by JOEY MARTIN | April 12, 2012, 6:49 pm
  3. But who decides? How do you decide who is an assassination target that is legitimate?

    Posted by Jordi | April 19, 2012, 11:37 am
  4. Do you think we can use the rights and duties frameworks of Donaldson and Hartmann without rethinking the nature of the organization? Would MORE correlative duties apply to the government? Or less?

    Posted by Jordi | April 25, 2012, 10:33 am
  5. This whole topic is very tricky. Business ethics, usually, depends on the idea of some sort of social stability. Traditionally, war is the opposite. It is in some ways the most lawless kind of human activity in which duties and rights seem moot compared to raw power. But that also seems too simplistic. As your history points out, attempts to impose law or ethical norms on nation to nation conflict does happen. So, at the end of this, whether a conflict is between legitimate parties to conflict, bound to some idea of law or ethics, or is some sort of totally chaotic conflict between a legitimate party (the US,a s it sees itself) and a “rogue” entity is still a question of global politics and power. If Al-Qaeda targeted a US general or politician, would that be more ethical than targeting civilians? Since many terrorists claim they must use their means exactly because they are banned or oppressed in their home countries (Egyptian Muslim brotherhood, Tamil Tigers, IRA, ETA, and so on), the entire premise of nations legitimately targeting enemy leaders is confounded by the intertwined notions of the law enforcement, war, and political states.

    If we the US declares war on a nation, is it legal to try and kill its top leaders? Or is that assassination? And if it is part of war, then the line between legitimate targets and illegitimate assassination targets is a function of who gets to declare war.

    Posted by Jordi | April 25, 2012, 10:41 am

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Blog 5 before session 6 What (interest) or Who (person) Inspires You? For this week’s prompt, the Blog Council wants you to examine how this class relates to your own interests. So, please write about how this class relates to some of your own intellectual or other learning interests. We are NOT interested in how it relates to a specific career goal. Plan B: same idea, but based on a person. See whole post for details.

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