The Stephanopoulus Option.--

The excerpts from George Stephanopoulus's December 1, 1997 Newsweek column ("Why We Should Kill Saddam") that I've seen on the web come from Newsmax. Yet there is a lot that is interesting in the rest of the piece, besides the portions already quoted. I have been unable to find a link for those who don't have LEXIS/NEXIS (or perhaps WESTLAW).

For example, Stephanopoulus says that he raised the idea of killing Saddam Hussein in a meeting in the Clinton Oval Office, but it was immediately ruled beyond discussion:

IN THE MIDDLE OF A CRISIS WITH IRAQ DURING PRESIDENT Clinton's first term, I wondered aloud in an Oval Office meeting about the prospects of killing Saddam Hussein. Before I could finish the sentence, the then national-security adviser Tony Lake looked up to the light fixtures and said: "He was just kidding. We're not planning anything like that." Of all the words you just can't say in the modern White House, like "shred this," none is more taboo than "assassination."

For good reason. Most of our cold-war efforts to kill foreign leaders like Fidel Castro (we planned to use exploding cigars and poisoned scuba suits) bordered on the comical — and rarely worked. So in the wake of the Church Committee's revelation of CIA abuses in places like Cuba, Chile and the Congo, President Ford signed a sweeping, one-sentence executive order: "No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination."

But what's unlawful — and unpopular with the allies — is not necessarily immoral. So now that I'm not in the White House, I can say what I couldn't say then: we should seriously explore the assassination option. Even though the current crisis may be subsiding temporarily, we don't know what the future holds. A direct attack on Saddam would no doubt be politically risky — the president, concerned about his place in history, would be torn between the desire to get rid of a bully and the worry that an assassination plan gone awry would embarrass him late in his term. But the president should think about it: the gulf-war coalition is teetering and we have not eliminated Saddam's capacity to inflict mass destruction. That's why killing him may be the more sensible — and moral — course over the long run.

Stephanopoulus then goes into just-war theory and the practical problems with getting Saddam. He even expresses doubt that a massive US war with allies would be able to topple Saddam's regime:

Experts like former CIA director Robert Gates have said that assassination is a "non-option" because Saddam is so elusive and well protected. That's the strongest argument against assassination. But it loses some force when stacked against the alternatives: an indefinite extension of the sanctions that punishes the most vulnerable Iraqis without weakening Saddam or eliminating his ability to build weapons of mass destruction; or a massive military campaign that will crack the gulf-war coalition, risk allied troops and kill innocent Iraqis without ensuring Saddam's fall.

Next he notes that President Reagan used a "targeted airstrike against the homes or bunkers" of "Libya's Muammar Kaddafi."

Stephanopoulus ends:

A misreading of the law or misplaced moral squeamishness should not stop the president from talking about assassination. He should order up the options and see if it's possible. If we can kill Saddam, we should. [Quotations from LEXIS]

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. The Stephanopoulus Option.--
  2. Assassination as a Tool of Foreign Policy:
Ah, the Don Corleone Doctrine...let's take out everyone we don't like at once, preferably when we're all in church.

Big talk from a couple of little guys, and we're all supposed to pretend that this deserves serious consideration in our public discourse. It's a damned pity that we have to remind some people that we believe in the justice and rightness of law and that no matter how repulsive or disgusting someone's behavior might be, a civilized society extends the right to a jury by one's peers to ALL people.
8.26.2005 10:20am
Jack S. (mail) (www):
Stephanopoulus always seemed like such an innocent nice guy too. Sounds like given the order he would have gone in and done it himself.
8.26.2005 10:42am
John Jenkins (mail):

It's late 1943, you're an allied commando in mainland Europe. You can kill Joseph Goebbels with one shot from where you stand. Do you do it or does he deserve a jury trial? If he does deserve a jury trial, why?
8.26.2005 11:51am
Jim Rhoads (mail):
I think another facet of this story is that the "popular press" handles this message more favorably when it comes from a Jesuit-trained Catholic liberal Democrat than from a "fundamentalist" Protestant conservative Republican.

The message is the pretty much the same, and raises the same moral dilemma as John presents.

I leave to the reader the decision as to whether Hussein, Chavez or Goebbels present the same dilemma.
8.26.2005 12:12pm
EstablishmentClaus (mail) (www):

I think that doesn't quite capture the situation (though it does seem to me to be a hard case to dismiss out of hand) for two reasons:

(1) It seems like you can catch Goebbels and give him a jury trial without the loss of thousands of innocent lives. That makes the case for shooting weaker than if he was the leader of a foreign country. Thus, the costs of getting him in custody and giving him a trial are lower.

(2) Goebbels is a murderer millions of times over, but he isn't Capone; he's a henchman. So while he likely deserves death for the murders, there doesn't seem to be a reasonable likelihood that your shot will stop future murders; another cog in the Nazi machine replaces him and the war goes on. As a result, the benefits of taking him out are lower.
8.26.2005 12:18pm
The Plumber (www):
I guess the decision rests on how large a threat an individual poses to the liberty of U.S. citizens. I view Kim Jung Il, Hu Jintao, Vicente Fox, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as severe threats to U.S. citizens. Would I breath easier if these men were eliminated? Yup.

Unfortunately, not getting caught may be impossible.
8.26.2005 12:30pm
I guess the decision rests on how large a threat an individual poses to the liberty of U.S. citizens. I view Kim Jung Il, Hu Jintao, Vicente Fox, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as severe threats to U.S. citizens. Would I breath easier if these men were eliminated?

And there's the rub(out) (sorry, the puns are just too tempting). I view Pat Robertson and Bill Frist as severe threats to the liberty of U.S. citizens, but somehow I can't reach the conclusion that my opinion on the matter justifies assassination.

(And really - Vincente Fox and Kim Jung Il in the same box? Wow.)
8.26.2005 12:36pm
John Jenkins (mail):
EC, I'm not making the utilitarian argument that killing him would prevent future deaths (and Goebbels was no mere heanchman: he was directly involved in the decision to exterminate European Jews). I am saying that Goebbels would deserve to die, that no purpose is served by a jury trial in that instance and that shooting him is a morally permissible act.

I disagree with your point (1). Goebbels was Chancellor of Germany and getting him out of there would be no small feat, but in any event that doesn't change my analysis at all. If ANYONE deserves to die, Goebbels did at that moment.

Finally, I deliberately didn't choose Hitler to (a) avoid invocations of Godwin's law, and (b) because it's tired and played out.

The case where the government is hostile to the U.S. and is based on a cult of personality is a utilitarian argument for this proposition. I would go further (agreeing Ayn Rand (&Vodkapundit) that these regimes have no legitimacy and no right to exist and their destruction by force is morally permissible, whether that involves assassinating their leaders or otherwise.
8.26.2005 12:38pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
(1) Goebbels was not "chancellor." Hitler was elected chancellor, but discarded the title in favor of "fuehrer." Goebbels was chiefly the propaganda minister, tho he may've held other titles in the Nazis' demonic hierarchies.

(2) "Goebbels was no mere heanchman: he was directly involved in the decision to exterminate European Jews." Really? I recall the diary passage where he was apprised of the decision, and he doubtless didn't argue or disagree, but I've never heard of anything to suggest that he really contributed to the decision's being made. I mean, Hitler's going to tell Himmler, "Ach, Heinrich, I was all ready to begin this Final Solution, but Joseph's against it"?
8.26.2005 1:20pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Wiki gives Goebbels one day as chancellor, after Hitler's suicide but before Goebbels' own. That would not however have been in 1943.
8.26.2005 1:23pm
Nobody (mail):
1. A number of years ago, an ABC News journalist wrote a column saying we should assassinate the president of Iraq.

2. The president of Venezuela might be unwilling to sell us oil.

3. Therefore, it is legitimate for us to assassinate the president of Venezuela.

My first thought when I heard Robertson's revolting comments the other day was that he was raising a trial balloon for conservatives in general--possibly at the direction of Rove et al. I predicted to my wife over dinner that night that, while Robertson might be condemned in the short term, within six weeks, the discourse would evolve to a point that whether to assassinate Chavez would be considered a legitimate subject of debate. Democrats would be villified for their obstructionist opposition to assassination.

I forgot that everything happens faster on the internet. Mr. Lindgren, you beat my prediction by five and a half weeks.
8.26.2005 1:23pm
John Jenkins (mail):
Actually, I think the debate is whether it is ever legitimate to assassinate someone as state policy. Not whether we ought to assassinate Chavez. First you need the analysis, then you apply the analysis to the facts...
8.26.2005 1:31pm
Bruce Wilder (www):
Stephanopolis was wrong in one of his premises:

Sanctions had stopped Saddam's programs to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Totally and completely, we now know.

How could we not know that in 1997, and still have the capability to assasinate Saddam?

How would it be possible to know where Saddam is, or would be, well enough to kill him, but not know that large-scale programs to acquire WMDs had been completely shut down?
8.26.2005 1:49pm
Glenn Bridgman (mail):
The fallacy is that it isn't just a decision between killing someone and not killing someone, it's a decision between a world with assasinations and a world without assasinations. The world's most powerful country doing it has a powerful legitimizing effect. You may be able to justify the assasination in the short term, but then Israel goes and knocks someone off in the middle east, and then china kills someone in taiwan and all of a sudden we are off to the races.
8.26.2005 2:27pm
John Jenkins:

You have presented a false dilemma as argument to support the claim. There are more than two alternatives, of which I am sure you are aware, so there is no need to list them. It's also an argument easily demolished - if you were a commando in the civil war, and you had an opportunity to take out Lincoln with one shot, would you do it? The fact that Booth was stupid enough to fall for such an argument with the resulting punishing reconstuction should be enough of an answer.

I also might remind you of the assassination of Heydrich by the Czechs during WWII. Not only did it not serve any purpose, but the consequences for the town of Lidice was death to almost the entire town - 173 men killed, 198 women sent to concentration camps, with many thousands also punished or killed because of the assassination.

It's foolish to take this kind of action when it is not possible to predict the consequences of the action.
8.26.2005 2:42pm
John Jenkins (mail):
It's not a false dilemma. I am intentionally providing only the two options and asking which is preferable; or more specifically whether one is morally impermissible, or that other is so much preferable that it absolutely preferable that it simply precludes the other.

The precautionary principle is useless as a guide to action, BTW, in that we can never predict with certainty the ultimate outcome of an action, therefore to use that as a reason not to take some action must necessarily generalize to other actions therefore paralzying you (and paradoxically, *not* taking any action is subject to the same critique).

What I take you to mean then is that the negative consequences are so great, and the positive consequences so little (adjusted for probability) that you don't think assassination is a good idea.

That is different from the earlier normative claim. That is a cost-benefit analysis that could permit assassination in some instances which is not what I took you to mean earlier.
8.26.2005 2:58pm
John Jenkins (mail):
Glenn Bridgman, that's another consequentialist argument about why it might be a bad idea. It's not an argument that it is morally impermissible. I took the earlier condemnations to mean that it is morally wrong in all cases, not because of the consequences, but because it is *wrong*. (I admit that a consequentialist sees those as the same thing, but I am asking from a deontological perspective)
8.26.2005 3:03pm
Glenn Bridgman (mail):
It's one of those consequentialist arguments codified into a moral rule things, similar to the rules of hospitiality in many parts of the world.
8.26.2005 3:16pm
Mr. Jenkins:

It certainly is a false dilemma offered as argument. Not only is it a false dilemma but it is phrased in highly leading language which is intended to elicit an "aha!" moment for you. If I were to answer that I would not take a shot at Goebbels, then the response would be that I countenance nazism and the holocaust. If I were to answer that I would take a shot at Goebbels then the response is that Saddam has committed the same crimes and therefore deserves to be assassinated. It's an either/or argument with two phony alternatives.

As to your comments about our inability to predict all consequences to all actions, of course we can't and I assumed that you knew that which is why I didn't insult you by a lengthy explanation of cause and effect. We may not be able to predict all consequences, but we can implement our human experience, knowledge of history and our empathy for other human beings to at the very least predict the major reaction to such an act. We certainly have enough examples to do so.
8.26.2005 3:18pm
Sean O'Hara (mail):
I wonder which Iraq crisis sparked Stephanopoulus' suggestion? If it was in response to the attempt on G.H.W. Bush's life, then that adds another dimension to the question. We may refrain from assassination out of fear of reciprocity, but it seems to me that if another country uses it against us, we're perfectly justified to respond in kind.

As a more general rule, I'd say that anyone in the military command structure -- whether a corporal, general, or President -- is a legitimate target during an armed conflict. Thus Chavez is off-limits, but there was nothing wrong with the opening salvo of the Iraq War being aimed at Hussein and his sons.
8.26.2005 3:22pm
NickM (mail) (www):
Who would have been "a jury of Hitler's peers"?

The idea that an enemy head of government is entitled to a trial by jury is preposterous.

Who gets to pick the law to be applied? Pol Pot broke no Cambodian laws. Idi Amin broke no Ugandan laws. These men set law by fiat.

Who counts as a peer? Slobodan Milosevic was popular among Serbs for presiding over a campaign of massacring Kosovar, Bosnian, and other Muslims.

And then there's that little point of how do you take the person into custody. How many thousands of our soldiers are you willing to sacrifice in an attempt to capture for trial an enemy leader rather than simply killing him?

8.26.2005 3:34pm
WHOI Jacket:
I guess it boils down to weither or not the person is a Kantian or a Utilitarian.
8.26.2005 3:50pm
John Jenkins (mail):
Your false dilemma is my thought experiment, I guess. I don't care whether you'd support Nazism, in any event. I'm asking if assassination is solutely forbidden or if there is a cost-benefit utilitarian-style analysis to be done in each case. I'm not interested in reasoning by analogy to Goebbels, I am interested in how committed you are to the propositions that "everyone is entitled to a jury trial" (which is a very interesting) view which I would be interested to hear a defense of) and that assassination is inconsistent with "law and rightness."
8.26.2005 4:35pm
Being of the legalistic persuasion, I might consider this option if we talked Congress into declaring a state of war with the offender's country first. Consider it the equivalent of getting a warrent from an Article III judge.
From a practical standpoint, the resulting scramble at the top of the anthill of a totalitarian/fascists' pyramid might result in an even crazier loon coming out on top. Think Uday following Saddam and fulfilling his father's dream of turning Tel Aviv into another Auschwitz, or Raul Castro (supposedly the Dick Cheney and the Karl Rove behind his buffoon big brother) getting his hands on Soviet missles.
8.26.2005 6:06pm
Sorry for the redundancy -- shouldn't type while I'm on the phone.
8.26.2005 6:15pm
Splunge (mail):
So what is so magical about condemnation by a jury instead of by some elected official(s) in the Executive or Legislative branch? Why should the majority vote of twelve randomly-selected citizens sanctify a killing by the State in a way that the decision of the popularly elected Commander-in-Chief during wartime does not?

Here's a thought experiment: What's-his-name, the chief terrorist in Iraq, al-Zarquawi, is captured by a Special Ops team next week. Option A: he is shot dead on the spot -- i.e. assassinated -- by order of the President. Option B: he is returned to the US, convicted by a jury of 12 stalwart citizens of multiple murder of uniformed US officers with special circumstances, and given a lethal injection a decade or so later. What precisely makes B the more moral option? Inquiring minds want to know.
8.26.2005 6:35pm
Glenn Bridgman (mail):
Splunge, we mandate that everyone get a jury trial as a way of insuring that innocent or questionably guilty people don't get romped in the name of law and order. You might make an argument for Zarquawi, but what about others? Who decides where the line is drawn. To avoid those issues, the constitution declares a blanket requirment for a jury trial.
8.26.2005 7:12pm
Splunge (mail):
Mr. Bridgman, recall I was asking about the morality of differing methods of sanctioning the killing of foreigners by the United States, not the legality. That a method is enshrined in the US Constitution for citizens may make it legally preferable (although I doubt this), but it says very little about its moral stature, eh? We do not treat the Constitution as a religious text, after all.

Nor am I asking whether a jury trial results in a more accurate determination of whether a given defendant is guilty or not. (A proposition I find arguable, at best. I suspect the President is in far better a position to decide whether foreign leaders are guilty of crimes against the United States than twelve random citizens.)

What I am asking is: why should a determination of guilt and sentence of death against a foreign party have greater moral stature if it comes from 12 random US citizens than from (say) the President? Why, for example, would we expect the rest of the world to accept the justice of such a determination more readily?
8.26.2005 7:32pm
marshall (mail):
Isn't it a process question? When we defend a jury, we aren't simply defending the jury as the ultimate decisionmakers, although that's part of it. The right to defend oneself in a court of law, to question one's accusers directly, and to present evidence, well, those are elements that don't exist when you are facing the unilateral order of assassination.

If I'm assessing the morality of one versus the other, I'd like to see them characterized correctly. As for what's moral, I use a simple calulus. I know what I'd want if my life depended on it. I'd want to count on more than the mercy and wisdom of a powerful, if popularly elected man.
8.26.2005 9:20pm
The problem with Robertson's quote wasn't that he suggested assassinating a foreign leader, but that he suggested assassinating Hugo Chavez.

As for the general question, the problem as I see it isn't the inherent morality of assassination, but the practical wisdom of adopting such a policy. What are the odds of success? What are the consequences of failure? What are the consequences of success? Even in a purely utilitarian framework, it seems like a clear loser to me unless the target is actively participating in genocide.
8.27.2005 12:25pm
The Plumber (www):

I suppose your right. Fox isn't a perceived threat as Jong Il is. Fox is a threat right now. The damage he is inflicting on the U.S. is occurring every day, right now. Fox is an immediate threat.
8.28.2005 2:03am