TCS Daily

'Regime Decapitation'

By James Pinkerton - July 30, 2003 12:00 AM

Let's not worry much about criticism of the Pentagon's decision to show the images of the late Uday and Qusay Hussein -- RNIP, Rest Not In Peace. Instead, let's worry about what's not being said about the targeting of specific individuals, as history and technology torque up the cycle of attack, defense, and revenge.


The criticism of the Mosul raid is coming from the usual suspects. Al-Jazeera TV maintained that the two men were "killed in cold blood, in what was a crime." Reuters headlined an article, "Arabs Shocked by TV Images of Saddam's Sons"; the piece quoted one Egyptian declaring, "under Islamic law, this is rejected." Of course, lots of things are rejected under Islamic law, including the killing of innocent people on 9-11, but many Arabs weren't so rejecting of that. Nor did they seem to object when carnage -- images of dead Americans were displayed at Desert One in Iran in 1980, Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993, or even earlier this year in Iraq. Let's face it: in a world where cameras keep getting smaller and cheaper, and where transmission, via satellite or the Net, gets easier, it's inevitable that just about anything will get to just about anywhere.


On the homefront, some American politicians were also rejectionist. Rep. Charlie Rangel mocked the military operation on the Fox News Channel, telling Sean Hannity, "We have a law on the books that the United States should not be assassinating anybody." Actually, it's not a law; it's a presidential executive order, which, of course, can be modified or eliminated at any time by another president. Moreover, it's far from clear that the death of the Hussein brothers rates as an assassination at all; a better parallel might be the wartime death of the Japanese admiral -- and Pearl Harbor planner -- Isoruku Yamamoto, whose airplane was shot down by the American Army Air Force in 1943. The U.S. had cracked the Japanese codes and so leapt at the opportunity to ambush Yamamoto's plane as the Japanese warlord visited the front. Nobody complained about that attack at the time, although, of course, Rangel wasn't in Congress then.


Meanwhile, Rep. Dick Gephardt accused the Bush administration of "chest beating" in the wake of the deaths. But in point of fact, the White House has been restrained. On July 23, President George W. Bush commented upon the news in Joe-Friday-like deadpan: "Yesterday ... the careers of two of the regime's chief henchmen came to an end."


The folks that haven't been so restrained are mostly in the media. On CNN, a huge chyron bannered the word "TRUMPED" across the screen, as a play on the dead men's deck-of-cards monikers. And the Washington Times ran a headline, "Bush hails death of dictator's two sons." Well, it's fair to say that W. wasn't displeased by the news, but he also wasn't visibly gloating.


In fact, there is one good reason not to gloat, and that reason applies to any American president. Across the sweep of world history, the wheel of military strategy is turning yet again; indeed, it is coming 'round full circle, to the point where political leaders and their families are once more becoming major targets.


In the mists of the past, tribal chief fought tribal chief, and the winner took all. In the Book of Samuel, Chapter 17, Goliath, champion of the Philistines, calls out to the Israelites, "Choose you a man for you, and let him come down to me. If he be able to fight with me, and to kill me, then will we be your servants: but if I prevail against him, and kill him, then shall ye be our servants, and serve us." The Israelites sent out David and his slingshot, and the rest is history, sort of.


But more recently, the struggle among nations has been handled in a much different way. Instead of king facing king, the king sent out an army, which would face the other king's army. And often, in the meantime, the warring parties would keep in touch, using back channels, or even relatives. During World War I, for example, the crowned heads of the combatant countries were oftentimes close relatives; George V of England was the nephew, by marriage, of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was also an uncle by marriage to Nicholas II of Russia.


Given those relationships, it was easy for leaders to see war in purely Clausewitzian terms. That is, when diplomacy failed, countries went to war with each other, pursuing their politics by further, nastier means. But it was increasingly rare that sovereigns were in any battlefield danger; the last British monarch actually to lead troops into battle was George II at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743.


In some ways, this wasn't a bad system; the relationships of those at the top echelons of power, formed by blood and class, kept war from erupting into genocidal totality. That is, if leaders believed that they would still be dealing with each other after the war, the incentive to terror-bomb cities and massacre populations was diminished. But at the same time, the notion that young men would fight and die while their overseers pondered their political options did not sit well with public opinion -- not to mention those who were fighting and dying. Indeed, the contrast between the horrors of trench warfare of 1914-18 and the luxe life lived in the respective capitals was one factor provoking the left- and right-wing revolutions that ensued.


The idea of a wargame-of-nations broke down completely in World War II, as the warring regimes rotated to new point on the historical wheel, in which everything was permitted. Why? Because the regimes were either a) so absolutely antithetical to each other, or b) so absolutely evil, that little or no military restraint seemed appropriate. To be sure, the British hesitated at first to bomb Germany, but when the Nazis proved they had no compunctions about bombing British population centers, Winston Churchill -- and soon, his ally, Franklin Roosevelt -- responded in kind. And of course, in the Ost, neither Adolf Hitler nor Josef Stalin, nor their respective hierarchs, entertained any notion of getting along with the other, ever. Thus when the Allies overran Germany in 1945, they were at pains to make sure that all top Nazis were either dead or on their way to the gallows or prison cells.


But in the last half-century, the historical wheel has rotated yet again. Peace as a value is held more dearly today, and the sort of ultra-violence that was common in World War II -- and could be amplified one-thousand-fold today -- is deemed to play poorly on television. It would have been unimaginable, for example, for the U.S. to have blasted Serbia in the 90s, or Iraq in 2003, the way we carpet-bombed Vietnam in the 60s. Today, the great powers -- especially The Great Power -- are at pains to proclaim that they are unleashing high-cost, high-tech weaponry to hit carefully high-value targets. And while there's a tendency among many to mock the term "surgical strikes," that term is, in fact, fitting, at least when applied to the U.S. military. I was in Baghdad in June, and can attest that I saw very little bomb damage. Indeed, when I came across buildings that were bombed, oftentimes I could see an apartment house or mosque nearby that wasn't harmed at all.


Thus the irony, as history and technology braid together into yet another knot. After thousands of years, we're now back to the ancient idea of leaders facing off, in effect, against other leaders. The Bush administration, confronted with a low tolerance for collateral damage in Iraq, and a low tolerance for American casualties at home, elected upon a daring strategy for the war in Iraq. On March 19, the Pentagon fired cruise missiles at a target in Baghdad, acting on a tip that Saddam Hussein might be there. The gamble appears to have failed; Saddam is generally -- although not unanimously -- believed to have survived the blast. Yet from an operational point of view, it was worth the shot; the history of the last four months might have been much different had Saddam died in that bunker.


But here's the catch: the idea of targeting leaders isn't exclusive to the United States. In high-stakes realpolitik, there's reaction, as well as action, and those reactions don't always require the highest of tech, which was the mordant point made by Charlie Rangel in that appearance on "Hannity & Colmes." As he said, "We tried to assassinate Castro and we paid dearly for it... When you personalize the war and you say you're killing someone's kids, then they, in turn, think they can kill somebody."


On this matter of assassinations, at least, Rangel and I think alike. We both seem to agree that an international game of tit-for-tat was being played in the early 60s -- and the U.S. got tatted. It's a matter of public record that the Kennedy administration tried to assassinate Fidel Castro, employing various gimmicks and goombahs. And to some of us, at least, it's always seemed evident that Lee Harvey Oswald was the trigger-puller in Dallas on November 22, 1963. But it's also seemed evident that Fidel Castro -- perhaps with some Soviet help -- was the string-puller. Consider: Oswald defected to the USSR in 1959, got married, had a baby. But then, amazingly, all three of them -- Oswald, plus his Soviet-born wife and child -- were allowed to leave Russia in 1962. Upon returning to the U.S., Oswald bounced around Texas and Louisiana, all the while subscribing to communist publications, corresponding with friends in the Soviet Union, agitating on behalf of Castro's Cuba, and plotting to kill various Americans. Including, most fatefully, John F. Kennedy, the longtime nemesis of that man in Havana.


So while speculation about who shot JFK continues to run rampant, I guess Rangel and I are wielding the same Ockham's Razor; the straightest line connects Oswald to communism, not to the CIA, H.L. Hunt, or the mafia. Yet the dilemma for American officialdom, in the wake of JFK's death, was what to do with these suspicions. Should the Warren Commission have followed that trail wherever it went? Even to the implication of Castro and, possibly, the Kremlin? To a retaliatory strike? To World War III? No. So the decision was made, I surmise, to stand back from the brink, to a shifting of the investigation to a less world-ending direction. But the logical leaps needed to skip over Castro's likely complicity ripped the logic of the government's case, thus leaving plenty of loopholes for others to exploit for their own purposes. Thus we have suffered through four decades of wild speculation, disconnected from the main evidentiary trail. Of course, it can still be argued that such speculation has been preferable to nuclear incineration.


Meanwhile, the business of targeted killings continues. The U.S. probably tried to kill Saddam in 1991, when bunker-buster bombing was much less precise. Two years later, Saddam staged a plot to assassinate former president George H.W. Bush in Kuwait. Two years ago, al Qaida apparently aimed to kill this President Bush -- as well as, presumably, the U.S. Congress -- by crashing passenger jets into Washington D.C.


Yet after March 19, any remaining doubt that Uncle Sam is willing to target foreign leaders has been removed. Most likely, we'll soon get Saddam, just as we did Uday and Qusay. And that's a good thing.


But now the world is on notice. Other leaders who think they might be on our hit list are likely to take counter-measures of their own, especially since they must realize, all the more clearly that they have no chance on the conventional battlefield. Some will be passive measures, such as improving their own security procedures. But some might be active counter-measures. And what, precisely, do I mean by active counter-measures? Maybe I'd better not say. But ask Rangel. Or ask Castro.


We've learned a lot about "regime change" in the past few years. But a companion concept, "regime decapitation," has received less attention. Yet it might receive more attention in the future. In the meantime, it would be a good idea for America to give more heed not only to presidential security, but to homeland security in general. Because as in any war, the enemy's incentive is to make the move we don't anticipate. That wheel of military history is always turning. 

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