Assassination as a Tool of Foreign Policy
In light of some recent discussions, I thought I’d repost some tentative thoughts on the subject (based on a 2005 post of mine), and see what the rest of you think.
1. Morality: Government-sponsored assassination is essentially an act of war; it’s an attempt to affect another nation’s government policy by military force. Nonetheless, if an invasion is morally justified, it seems to me that an assassination is if anything more so. It would be an odd morality that allowed the killing of enemy soldiers, many of whom are personally morally innocent, but forbade the killing of their commander-in-chief—or even ostensibly civilian leaders of the enemy government—who may be morally culpable indeed.
Idi Amin was ultimately driven from power by a Tanzanian invasion (which was prompted by a Ugandan invasion of Tanzania, but would have been eminently justified even without that). If the Tanzanians or others could have stopped Amin’s murders by assassinating Amin, and without killing any Ugandan soldiers, that would have been even better.
The same goes for many other tyrants, though naturally not for every leader you dislike: Just as invasions are unjustified in most certain circumstances, so are assassinations (especially of democratic leaders, where the people’s self-government as well as the leader’s right to live are implicated). My point is simply that assassinations are no morally worse than other acts of war, and likely morally better than many such acts.
(I set aside for purposes of this post questions about whether and when such assassinations violate either domestic law or international law; the “morality” inquiry is about whether they’re inherently wrong, not just about whether they violate the legal rules, since presumably we can change any executive orders of statutes, or withdraw from any treaties, that we think are too constraining. For
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