There are many approaches to the subject of ethics. Aristotle said that we do not naturally possess goodness of character. Only by obedience to rules of valid conduct do we acquire such goodness. Does our national security establishment even know what goodness is? And was it right to assassinated General Soleimani?
Rightness of action, according to Aristotle, involves taking a middle path between a vice of deficiency and a vice of excess. The following table illustrates various vices:
Now let us examine President Trump’s order to kill General Soleimani. As actions go, the killing partakes of the spheres of Fear and Confidence, Honor and dishonor (major), actuated through temper and truthfulness (or lies).
On the first of these dimensions, did President Trump act with rashness, courage or cowardice? We cannot say it was cowardly, because he publicly took responsibility for killing a high-ranking Iranian general. No coward would place himself in the crosshairs of a violent terrorist regime. The question is whether or not President Trump acted rashly (i.e., the vice of having too much confidence).
Is Trump over-confident? In terms of acceptable risk, a leader should not create a situation in which he is likely to be killed. Leaders are not invincible, immortal, supermen. Therefore it is not, in principle, wise to wage war with poison weapons, or to target enemy leaders, unless you are prepared to suffer the same fate as those you have targeted.
In principle, a policy of killing enemy leaders, which (I am sad to admit) the United States has followed intermittently since Pearl Harbor, exposes our own leaders to assassination. An example of how this works may be found in the case of President John Kennedy’s assassination. It is known that Kennedy ordered a hit on Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. It is also known that Castro learned of Kennedy’s order through a double agent (i.e., the prospective assassin), and said he knew about Kennedy’s hit when he visited the Brazilian Embassy in September 1963. These facts have been alluded to by famous persons, including President Lyndon Johnson and the chief of the CIA’s counterintelligence staff, James Angleton. It is believed by some intelligence experts that two communist bloc intelligence services (DGI and KGB) were complicit in Kennedy’s assassination; that the Soviets acted to defend Castro, preemptively, and to lay down the law to future American presidents. This action had the intended effect when President Gerald Ford instituted Executive Order 12333, prohibiting assassinations. Because President Ford understood why Kennedy was assassinated, he exercised prudence to safeguard the person of the president — reflecting the lesson of Dallas, learned on 22 November 1963. The lesson was simple: America should not attempt to assassinate foreign leaders or officials. President Carter and President Reagan affirmed Executive Order 12333 during their terms of office.
Many will disagree with a policy of restraint. Why not kill the bad guys? One should ask, in this context, whether the life of a U.S. President is worth the life of a hostile general or dictator. There are issues here touching on public order, foreign interference in domestic politics, and the wounding of public confidence and morale. Considering the greatness of America’s presidential office, it is inconceivable we should think our president commensurable with any foreign official. Few countries combine the head of state in the same person as the head of government. Ours is one such country. I believe it is wrong to put a president at risk.
Yet there is a sinister side to this as well. The president did not put himself at risk entirely by himself. He had help in doing this. The Democrats, and perhaps a few Republicans, would like to remove Trump from office. They cannot beat him in an election. They are hesitating to impeach him because the Senate will not convict. What other option might the Deep State have? Was the decision to kill Soleimani an attempt to generate lethal blowback against a disliked president? Trump’s critics in the National Security Council know his weaknesses. They also know how dangerous it would be to kill an Iranian IRGC General and brag about it. Quite frankly, this was not merely rash. It was stupid. The Iranians will react. They will go after President Trump. What I’d like to know is whose idea was this? Who gave this option to a brash, impulsive president? — a president who likes to brag!
We are now entering into questions which go beyond the moral failings of a president. We are bound to explore the moral failings of presidential advisors as well. After the release of the IG Report does anyone think our national security people are Boy Scouts? After the sickening spectacle of the Intelligence Committee impeachment hearings are we encouraged to trust the president’s NSC advisors? I don’t trust them. I think they give dangerous advice.
Our entire national security apparatus is permeated with immoral, unprincipled people. Look at what they’re credited with in recent years: enhanced interrogation techniques, drone strikes that kill innocent civilians and hostages, generals who sell out their own soldiers to curry favor with politically correct politicians, federal raids on whistleblowers, the jailing of innocent witnesses, fake intelligence reports, political spying, smuggling weapons to the same terrorists we are supposed to be fighting, etc., etc. The extra-judicial killing of foreign statesmen and generals is simply one more in a growing list of bad practices.
In my opinion the extra-judicial killing of statesmen and generals is not prudent. If we can kill whomever we judge to be “evil,” by whatever means we deem necessary, God help us. What remedies will other governments then apply against us? If we believe the assassination of Soleimani has made Iranians afraid, why wouldn’t they apply a similar logic to make us afraid? And where does that take us?
After the USSR collapsed we falsely believed we were the lone superpower. We have become progressively more deranged ever since. The tragedy of 9/11 led to ill-advised invasions, interventions, over-extensions — Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria. In the wars between the Shiites and the Sunnis we were going to play the balance of power. But people who are drunk with power have no sense of balance.
Trump’s action is not Trump’s action alone. It is the act of an establishment — with bad habits and worse policies. To order someone killed is rather personal. If this person is a criminal or a terrorist, we accept that they may be “wanted dead or alive.” But an official of a sovereign country represents something different, something distinct from mere piracy or banditry. Even if a regime is objectively evil and supports terrorism, it is nonetheless a POWER. As such it has a recognized “right” of self-defense (under international law). It also has allies armed with nuclear weapons (Russia, China and North Korea). The recognition of Iran’s right of self-defense is not something we can ignore. And there is World War III to consider.
Will the killing of Soleimani trigger a wider war? Probably not. What we do know is that Iran’s leaders have vowed revenge on President Trump. Here the rules of war are suspended and a blood feud begins. This is a game America should not be playing. Because President Trump made the killing of Soleimani personal, the Iranian leaders are honor bound to make their reply personal in turn.
But isn’t this simply war? No. It would be monstrous to make war an affair of murdering specific persons for revenge. It is an ancient principle, observed for centuries, that an enemy in war is depersonalized for good reason; first, for the sake of the soldier’s conscience; second, for the sake of the peace that must follow; third, because wars are not fought for personal reasons. They are fought for reasons of state. In respect of these points, nobody should say that soldiers on the battlefield are murderers. They are killers only; and it is a significant distinction. The Sixth Commandment, properly translated, says, “thou shalt not murder.” To kill may be honorable. To be an assassin, to commit murder, is never honorable.
Having noted the distinction between the personal and impersonal we should also consider what the tutor of Queen Elizabeth I, Alberico Gentili, said on the subject. He wrote that an open attack on an unarmed enemy leader who is not on the battlefield is murder (that is, an assassination). He argued that a murder of this kind could lead to further excesses. War would then gradually lose its relationship to valor. Gentili warned:
…accomplishment of victory consists in the acknowledgment of defeat by the enemy, and the admission that one is conquered by … honorable means….
How will an enemy react to dishonorable means? Such an enemy, feeling wronged, will refuse to make peace. In the case of killing a leader as a preemptive strategy, Gentili warned that a new leader would almost certainly emerge to take the place of the fallen leader. The followers of the assassinated leader would redouble their efforts in the name of revenge. If, however, a leader is killed honorably in battle, then who would dare say it was wrong?
Was General Soleimani armed and on the battlefield when the American drone strike killed him? No. In the strictest sense, it was not an honorable killing. You may object, of course, that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) murders people all the time; that they do not follow the rules of war, that we are entitled to kill them at will. But the Iranians did not target a named American general. We cannot claim we were retaliating in kind.
With these considerations in mind, I am compelled to say that Trump acted rashly in the sense given by Aristotle; that his advisers failed him. Perhaps they even betrayed him. Trump has exposed himself to serious danger for which he has nothing to show. Certainly, I would like to believe he has saved lives. But lives are going to be lost in the Middle East no matter what we do. Who can calculate, in truth, which path signifies less loss of life?
In the matter of honor and dishonor, we cannot say that President Trump acted honorably in the killing of Soleimani; for most of the great captains of history would have regarded it as vainglorious to take credit for slaughtering a man with a drone strike. It is likewise vainglorious to imagine that a policy of assassination is a sign of strength, or an effective tactic. Since when has it been so? Drone strikes have, up to the present, served as a substitute for victories which America has been unable to achieve.
With regard to President Trump’s truthfulness, we take what he says as a matter of faith. He ordered the strike on Soleimani to “stop a war.” He acted to save American lives. But watching General Soleimani’s state funeral, seeing the bitter tears of Iran’s leaders, I wonder who is going to save President Trump.
The same people who tried to frame him as a Russian stooge?