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Cheney on target on targeted attacks

By W. James Antle III
web posted August 20, 2001

Let us suppose that the United States government discovered a terrorist plot to assassinate a former American president during a trip to a foreign country. How might the United States react to such a finding? By pleading for understanding? Through negotiations? Conducting a search for more moderate members of the terrorist country's government?

Or is it instead probable that the US would bomb the living daylights out of the country responsible prior to any attempt to carry out the act, thus sending a message to others contemplating similar activity?

If you have stopped briefly to mull this scenario over, ponder no more - such an event has already occurred and we know as a matter of record precisely how the US responded. When US intelligence sources discovered that the Iraqi government planned to have former President George H.W. Bush assassinated while on a visit to Kuwait, the military under then commander-in-chief Bill Clinton launched air strikes against Iraqi targets.

Although the actions are not entirely analogous, one does detect just a whiff of hypocrisy from the government that finds such actions justifiable condemning Israel's recent actions against those plotting terrorist attacks against their population. The Israelis have periodically followed a policy of targeted killings, whereby they launch attacks with the intent of killing certain known terrorists, frequently in order to preempt terrorist attacks Israeli intelligence have discovered in the planning phase. Under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, this practice has been intensified in response to recent increases in Palestinian violence.

The US State Department, attempting to be consistent with our policy prohibiting assassinations, has condemned these targeted killings. Secretary of State Colin Powell telephoned Prime Minister Sharon to tell him that the United States found such actions unacceptable and urged a political resolution of Palestinian terrorism. Other spokesmen deplored the violence on both sides, pointedly including these killings.

Vice President Dick Cheney then decided to point out the obvious in an interview a couple of weeks back with FOX News. "In Israel, what they've done, of course, over the years, occasionally, in an effort to preempt terrorist activities, is to go after the terrorists," the vice president said. "And in some cases, I suppose, by their lights it is justified." Cheney continued: "If you've got an organization that has plotted or is plotting some kind of suicide bomber attack, for example, and they have hard evidence of who it is and where they're located, I think there's some justification in their trying to protect themselves by preempting."

For this comment Cheney was roundly denounced in Arab newspapers and criticized by some pundits in this country. People claimed this would encourage the Israeli government to commit military aggression. Of course, the White House attempted to downplay Cheney's remarks and distance itself from common sense. "The vice president and the president and secretary of state are all in unison about the need to stop the violence in ... the region. What the vice president was reflecting on is how both parties see justification in the actions they take," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer helpfully explained. "It is the policy of the United States to oppose these killings."

The vice president phrased his statement in such a way as to provide adequate contextual wiggle room for Fleischer to offer such an explanation. The question that remains is whether Cheney, as most of us originally understood him, was actually wrong or is current US policy wrong.

If the government of any country has knowledge of an impending terrorist attack and does not take some action to prevent it from happening, this would be a reckless dereliction of duty. That would make the government complicit in the killing of its own citizens by external aggressors. A preemptive attack against the putative terrorists themselves is a morally justified act.

Vice President Cheney noted that the preferable response would have been to take this information to the Palestinian Authority for their attention. Yet there have been cases where this has proved fruitless. What is Israel supposed to do? It is faced with escalating terrorist violence that has proved impervious to political resolution. It must act aggressively in self-defense, both to prevent future attacks and demonstrate the strength and resolve to send a message that such violence will not go unmet. Is Israel instead supposed to allow itself to be destroyed?

Not only did the US bomb Iraq when Saddam Hussein plotted against the first President Bush, but President Ronald Reagan bombed Libya in what could be construed as an attempted targeted killing in response to that country's terrorism in 1986. Many feel this action deterred certain subsequent terrorist acts by Ghadafi's government.

This is not to suggest that Israel is faultless in its dispute with the Palestinians. But the policy of condemning targeted killings is wrong in principle. It is preferable to kill specific individuals likely to pose a threat to a nation's security and interests than to launch blanket offensives killing innocent civilians. Civilians were killed when NATO bombed Belgrade in response to Slobodan Milosevic's actions in Kosovo. Thousands of children are reported to be dying as a result of US sanctions against Iraq that have failed to dislodge Saddam.

Would it not be better to have targeted killings of agents of ethnic cleansing and terrorists in hostile states than to launch attacks against entire populations that endanger and frequently kill civilians? Can we realistically punish children and the elderly for failing to rise up and overthrow those we prohibit ourselves from taking out?

Some might decry this as a policy of assassination. But we would not raze an entire neighborhood looking for an escaped fugitive in its midst. A policy that directs lethal force against people who are actual threats rather than their country's civilians may prevent future terrorist attacks and minimize the loss of life. It is a defensible trade-off that ought not be so casually condemned. ESR

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at wjantle@enterstageright.com.

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