Hands up anyone who remembers the first scene in Air Force One, the film in which Harrison Ford plays the American president as action hero: The opening credits roll, parachutes open up, American paratroopers swoop down. With their laser-guided guns and super high-tech night goggles, they knock the snipers off the roof of the residence of Gen. Ivan Radek, the bad-guy leader of a mythical Kazakhstan, a rogue state whose post-Soviet nukes threaten the West. Then they storm through the building, drag the general from his bed, and whisk him away in a helicopter to meet his fate at the hand of international justice.
But is this scene mere Hollywood fantasy? Or could it herald the future of NATO? Officially, the answer is no: In the wake of the umpteen failed attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro and others, custom and habit, not to mention the law (several executive orders from the 1970s and 1980s) now prohibit American presidents from authorizing assassinations of foreign leaders. In practice, of course, they’ve tried anyway, but usually by the ineffective means of aerial bombing raids. Ronald Reagan once had a go at Muammar Qaddafi, bombarding his house during an attack on Tripoli. In the course of Desert Storm, allied forces targeted Saddam Hussein’s presidential palaces, just as NATO didn’t shy away from aiming at places where Slobodan Milosevic might conceivably be hiding during the bombing of Belgrade.
Aerial bombing is inefficient, however, and rarely successful. And although everyone responsible for policy will hotly deny that anyone has ever attempted assassination of anybody in Serbia or Iraq, it is becoming clear that in the wake of Kosovo—and in light of the continued threats posed by Saddam Hussein—the thought of trying to target terrorist dictators with greater precision has begun to enter the heads of some NATO planners. The argument goes like this: Wars in both Kosovo and Iraq have been extremely expensive, costing huge amounts of money and thousands of lives. If new technology—say, hit teams with access to satellite-tracking technology—could make assassinations easier, faster, and more likely to succeed than the exploding cigars we used to send to Castro, shouldn’t we try that instead? Last Friday’s renewed bombing of Iraq was a perfect illustration of the sort of military action nobody really likes taking. It makes America look aggressive, it angers the unconsulted NATO allies, it inflames the Russians and the Chinese, it doesn’t solve the problem. How much more efficient it would be to send in an Air Force One-style hit squad, eliminate Saddam Hussein—and eliminate the source of the conflict for good.
As I say, it is my understanding that this sort of thing has been discussed, not that it is already in the actual planning stages. Nevertheless, rumors are percolating around my part of the world and are powerful enough to make some people nervous. Last week, the Washington Times printed an article describing legislation recently introduced by Georgia Rep. Bob Barr that would restore the American president’s license to assassinate foreign leaders. Although the bill has no co-sponsors, and although Barr himself is quoted saying he has “no idea” whether the legislation will win approval, the mere appearance of the article was enough to cause a flurry of panic in Belarus, whose dictatorial president, Alexander Lukashenko, apparently assumed he would be the first target. The head of the foreign affairs committee of the Belarus parliament pompously complained on television that such a law “testifies to the loss not only of political sensibility, but also to all human feeling.”
Assassination attempts on Lukashenko strike me as highly unlikely—alas for the poor Belarussians, they are not strategically important enough to merit such lavish attention. Nevertheless, I note, for the record, that at least one mysterious assassination has occurred in recent memory, not so very far from Minsk. Just before the Russian presidential elections of 1996, the then Chechen rebel leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, was killed by a laser-guided Russian missile, apparently while talking on a mobile telephone. Here I concede that I really am reporting completely unsubstantiated rumor; nevertheless, I note, for the record, that on two occasions Chechen leaders visiting the West angrily told me that the American government had used its satellites to pinpoint the exact location of Dudayev, or rather his telephone, as a favor to Boris Yeltsin in the run-up to the election campaign. (And not only Chechens think so)
True or false, the Dudayev rumor also illustrates the most important drawback of open assassination attempts: Even if they succeed—and in the world outside of Hollywood, one suspects they often wouldn’t—they don’t necessarily win you friends and influence among the people whose leader you have eliminated. Again, NATO might have saved vast sums of money and many lives by assassinating Slobodan Milosevic in the early 1990s, perhaps ending the war in Bosnia and preventing the war in Kosovo. NATO might also have so inflamed the Serbs that someone even worse might have come to power. In the end, the Serbs deposed Milosevic themselves, perhaps laying the ground for a peaceful, democratic, stable Serbia, which may one day even be a member of NATO.
Waiting for that change required a great deal of Western patience. Because patience is wearing out elsewhere—particularly in Iraq—prepare yourself now for the possible use of “other methods.”