Targeted assassinations could open a Pandora’s box

By: Rachel Marsden

PARIS — When U.S. President Donald Trump recently requested from his national security advisers a series of options for targeting Iran’s main nuclear site, Natanz, his advisers reportedly deterred him from ordering a conventional missile strike. But a question loomed: What option did Trump choose instead?

It appears that we now have the answer. And it represents a major shift in American warfare.

Just days after Trump’s request for military options against Iran’s nuclear program, top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in Tehran when the car he was a passenger in was riddled with gunfire. Iranian officials are attributing the killing to Israel, and the Iranian media reported that satellite-controlled weapons were used in the attack.

The Fakhrizadeh assassination echoes that of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike during a visit to Iraq on Jan. 3. The Soleimani killing took place at a time when Trump was outspoken about what he perceived to be malignant Iranian activity in the Middle East — a common refrain of brainwashed Washington neoconservatives — even though Soleimani supported counterterrorist operations against ISIS jihadists in Iraq and Syria at the request of those governments. NBC News reported that Israeli intelligence provided the U.S. with support for the Soleimani assassination.

Two glaring themes emerge, and they represent a shift in American warfare strategy.

First, gone are the massive displays of “shock and awe” conventional warfare that characterized previous administrations. It was becoming increasingly evident that the strategy was pointless. Not only did it lead to civilian casualties, but what’s the point of bombing a country that you’re never going to be able to occupy because its citizens will never accept your presence as an occupier? These old tactics have given way to the highly specific microtargeting and liquidation of key actors — in the case of Iran, a top military commander whom the U.S. (however dubiously) identified as a terrorist, and a top scientist in charge of Iran’s nuclear program, which the U.S. (however dubiously) considers a threat.

Second, America is outsourcing some of the work to a willing ally: Israel. Doing so muddies the waters for the enemy, complicating attack attribution and making it more difficult to predict where the next bullet will be coming from. (Of course, there’s always the possibility that the targeted country will decided not to put too fine a point on the matter and just target everyone responsible in retaliation.)

Trump has reduced conventional American warfare to mafia-style hits that “disappear” individuals problematic to American interests in the streets worldwide. America is the kingpin and Israel is its consigliere. And while the strategy limits collateral damage and America’s conventional military footprint, it opens a Pandora’s box. Because what if America’s targets started doing the same?

What recourse would the U.S. and Israel have if Iran and its allies started murdering American and Israeli officials deemed a threat to Iran’s viability? Given that offensives against Iran have included economic, military and diplomatic measures, the possibilities for potential individual targets are seemingly endless.

The targeted killing of terrorists is a well-worn practice. But qualifying scientists and officials as “terrorists” in order to justify murdering them is something new. There appear to be no checks and balances on who gets designated for elimination, even though there are official terrorist blacklists maintained by the State Department and the FBI. When an individual who doesn’t appear on these lists is targeted for assassination under a counterterrorist pretext, what’s to prevent the government from ordering the murder of anyone who gets in the way of its interests — or other nations from declaring war on those who terrorize their citizens with economic sanctions and threats of attack, as Trump and his administration have done with Iran?

International law is supposed to prevent such abuses, but it lost any teeth that it may have had long ago. So get ready for a new era of Wild West-style warfare that starts with propaganda attempting to paint potential targets as being associated with terrorism — a catch-all label which has long granted governments a blank check — followed by targets being liquidated in the streets wherever they happen to be in the world.

The new standard has been set, and unless targeted nations are overflowing with goodwill and benevolence, they’re likely to adapt and respond in kind. Our leaders should try to keep the whining to a minimum when other countries prove to be just as good at these tactics — and remember who started it.