In 44 BC conspirators favoring a Roman Republic stabbed famed commander Julius Caesar to death because he seemed to be heading to one-man rule. There followed fourteen years of war involving Caesar’s supporters and opponents. It was won by Caesar’s adopted son Octavius, who as emperor Augustus created a one man rule beyond even Caesar’s imagining. Assassination hadn’t worked.
A similar question arises over a more recent assassination of Iranian military leader Quassem Soleimani by a U.S. drone strike. The consensus seems to be that as a “bad guy” he deserved to be targeted. But there’s less assurance about the aftermath. Tensions have risen and could they lead to all-out war with Iran? That would be welcomed by the neo-conservatives who surround President Trump but probably not by most of the rest of humanity.
This bears too close a resemblance to an earlier assassination that went wildly awry: the murder of Austrian Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 that unleashed World War One by bringing in all the significant powers of the time. Today Iran is backed, if uneasily, by China and Russia. Can the U.S. risk an encounter with them to put down a regional power that doesn’t really threaten it?
Assassination is a problematic form of warfare – not exactly heroic. The assassin shadows his prey and awaits the opportunity to strike. Unawares, the victim is quickly killed, usually by bullets or bomb, and the assassin escapes unharmed, sometimes caught, sometimes not. Today there’s an even cleaner form of assassination. The perpetrator sits in a comfortable chair in an air-conditioned room watching a screen and simply pushes a button or moves a lever. Bang! A drone half a world away delivers the fatal punch.
According to Ronen Bergman, an Israeli investigative journalist, President Obama approved 353 assassinations while in office, and President Trump appears to be trying to match, maybe surpass that record. In his book “Rise and Kill First,” Bergman writes that Israel served as a model for the U.S. Surrounded by enemies, unable to subdue Iranian-backed irregulars confronting it, Israel has resorted to assassinating more people than any other country. in the western world. These have been ingenious and painstaking with dozens, occasionally hundreds involved just to target one man like a scientist working on an Iranian nuclear project.
Occasionally, Israel and the U.S. have cooperated in an assassination, though this is forbidden by U.S. law. “It was a gigantic multi-force operation with crazy resources invested by both countries,” says an Israeli commander of a combined project in 2008. The aim was achieved of eliminating a top Hezbollah leader, but today that organization remains intact, stronger than ever. Bergman concludes that what is a tactical success can be a strategic failure. Assassination is a short cut to a political end without the need of persuasion, popular support or votes and suffers from that limitation.