The U.S. government has been in the business of killing foreign leaders for a long time–but it’s still a crime.
Although analysts will endlessly debate the legality of the recent assassination of Iran’s Qasem Soleimani by drone strike, the law has no place for crimes of this kind. Of all people, Ronald Reagan signed Executive Order 12333 that reads in part: “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.” Later moves to make exceptions for terrorists cannot erase the original intent of the order.
The Geneva Convention, which provides guidelines for warfare, provides: “…it is prohibited to kill, injure or capture an adversary by perfidy.” For example, if an enemy combatant waves a white flag, it is illegal to kill him as he attempts to surrender. As Iran was not engaged in active hot warfare with the U.S., the killing of Soleimani was an unpredictable ambush of a man whose guard was down.
More to the point however is the fact that the killing of a high ranking government official is for all practical purposes a declaration of war. It was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914 by Serbian operatives that triggered World War I. Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution gives the power to declare war solely to the Congress. In the wake of the Soleimani killing, many in Congress are in shock because they knew nothing.
While the War Powers Resolution provides for those occasions when a President may need to use military force without Congressional authorization, the Soleimani killing fits within none of the authorized circumstances. While the legislation provides that a President can use military force if the U.S. has been attacked, not only had there been no attack, we can’t believe the Administration’s claims of imminent attack because we can’t believe Oval Office claims of any kind.
Let’s not kid ourselves. The U.S. government has been in the business of killing foreign leaders for a long time. At the direction of Dwight Eisenhower the CIA developed plans to poison Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first Prime Minister. The CIA was involved in hundreds of plots to kill Fidel Castro. Ronald Reagan staged a bombing raid on Muammar Gaddafi’s compound that left the Libyan leader alive but killed his infant daughter. Years later, President Obama created conditions that allowed for Libya’s racist rabble to finish the job by jamming a bayonet into Gaddafi’s rectum. The list of victims and suspected victims goes on.
But the difference in recent years has been the brazenness of these killings. In an earlier era there was recognition of the fact that assassinations are illegal, and plots to carry them out not only had to be covert, but furiously denied if discovered. However, when Gaddafi was killed in 2011, Hilary Clinton arrogantly proclaimed: “We came, we saw, he died.” Likewise, Trump has boasted of the Soleimani assassination and the corporate media has been his biggest cheerleader.
The contradictions between imperialist actions and the legal standards they create can do much to raise mass consciousness and accelerate revolutionary momentum. But this can happen only if people know what the law is in the first place. Imperialists have been vigilant in their efforts to obscure and distort legal standards. We must be just as vigilant in ensuring clarity.
Mark P. Fancher is an attorney and writer. He can be contacted at mfancher[at]comcast.net.