Security Studies Review Paper: Two Foreign Policy Articles (January 2020) by Daniel Byman and Charli Carpenter
Two reviews of analysis & opinion articles by Professors Carpenter and Byman following the targeted killing of Qassem Suleimani by the U.S. in January 2020
Two reviews of analysis & opinion articles by Professors Carpenter and Byman following the targeted killing of Qassem Suleimani by the U.S. in January 2020:
Charli Carpenter’s “Assassination, Extrajudicial Execution, or Targeted Killing - What’s the Difference?”
Daniel Byman’s “Iran Can Find a New Suleimani”
Charli Carpenter (2020) Assassination, Extrajudicial Execution, or Targeted Killing – What’s the Difference? (Foreign Policy)
Original review publication date: 19 November 2020
Professor Charli Carpenter supposedly wrote an “explainer” (analysis) piece to clarify the difference between assassinations, extrajudicial executions and targeted killings. Yet I believe it is more of an argument piece. This piece is especially useful as a source in which a well-known law professor passionately opposes any such operations.
Details of the Reviewed Article
Title: Assassination, Extrajudicial Execution, or Targeted Killing – What’s the Difference?
By: Charli Carpenter
Publication: Foreign Policy
Published: January 2020
Notes, insights & remarks:
Law Professor Charli Carpenter supposedly wrote an “explainer” (analysis) piece to clarify the difference between assassinations, extrajudicial executions and targeted killings after the U.S. conducted a targeted killing operation which killed Qassem Suleimani on 3 January 2020. However, I believe it is more of an argument piece. She vehemently opposes any such operations to the extent that she leaves no room for other explanations, analysis, and legal interpretations. It seems like a black and white situation in her mind. I strongly disagree, pointing out the issues.
First of all, although the piece promises to explain “What’s the Difference?” between the three terms, she does not even seem to try and write about the entire debate concerning these terms. Scholars have written a lot about targeted killing, assassination, and extra judicial killing. Any person is able to easily find information about it via Googling for open access scholarship, JustSecurity, and so on. Surely a professional person such as Carpenter, who is a “Professor in the Department of Political Science and Legal Studies at University of Massachusetts-Amherst specializing in international law and human security”, is well aware of it all. It is therefore unreasonable that this is missing from an analysis piece such as this.
Second, the text is structured in a way meant to influence the opinions of readers.
She is quite late to admit that there aren’t agreed upon definitions, not even for codified terms such as Political Assassination, which is a term mentioned in international law treaties because it is prohibited (but again, not defined).
Moreover, it is a very much a one-sided interpretation of the law and of certain situations (operational and overall legal framework status) instead of even noting other opinions which do not align with her views. That noted, while debating what legal framework status applied to the situation and aspects concerning with the operational situation, I tend to highly disagree with her once she goes beyond claiming foul play by the U.S. (law-wise, strictly speaking).
Furthermore, some cherry-picking examples combined with attempting to scare readers. For instance, she wraps up the piece by warning that since the US erodes the ”assassination norm” (killing specifically named persons), it damages the norm (conveniently forgetting other countries of course, how about Russian killings on UK soil), and consequently notes that “[t]he United States should not be surprised if other nations pick up the practice, too.”
Nonsense! It Is All The Same: Targeted Killings, Political Assassinations, and ExtraJudicial Killing
According to Carpenter, the public became inured to the term Targeted Killings. In her opinion, this term is equal to Political Assassinations. It simply has better PR than the word assassination, which carries a negative connotation. Targeted killing is used to whitewash and legitimize U.S. operations which are essentially identical to the operations the U.S., together with other countries, condemned Israel for in the past.
She emphasizes targeted killing is also precisely the same as “the extrajudicial execution of nonstate political adversaries.”
She states Suleimani’s killing was a “political murder.”
I believe her use of the word “political” in the text is frivolous. She considers Suleimani as a political actor as if he was a politician. But he was a member of Organized Armed Group rather than a politician. As a political actor of Iran, he was forming and implementing Iran’s strategy, planning as well as overseeing operations. Importantly, this was not just as a part of the Iranian government but via Iran’s proxies – non-state actors.
Illegal, Regardless of Legal Frameworks: Human Rights Laws, International and Non-International Armed Conflicts
As Carpenter goes on and essentially considers all of the terms – targeted killings, political assassinations, assassinations, extra judicial killings, etc. – as the same thing, she discusses the permissibility of such operations during different legal frameworks (peace times like human rights laws; and times of war like the laws of international and non-international armed conflicts). She declares there was no option in which the killing of Suleimani was legal. No matter the legal framework and so on.
Although I could’ve agreed with some parts of her argument, she goes so much far beyond claiming it was an illegal act. No perspective, no legal interpretation besides her own would’ve been considered reasonable. Even in times of war, in her mind, targeted killings are illegal, aside from the super specific “in wartimes, a military official such as Suleimani could arguably be lawfully killed but only if an international armed conflict already existed between Iran and the United States. And even then, it would not be legal to single him out as an individual, least of all in a third country not party to the war.” This is simply unreasonable and has no basis – it would have been absolutely legitimate and very much legal to “single him out as an individual” under such circumstances. The main thing I do agree with Carpenter is the violation of Iraqi sovereignty in this case.
Carpenter then moves on to argue the Suleimani killing was not legal even based on the U.S.’s domestic law. She writes that the “United States began to argue [during Bush era] that the ban on assassination applied only to political leaders and only in peacetime.” The Obama administration embraced it. But this has legal interpretations nuances, which she does certainly not agree with. Here on, her path is paved to conclude that the U.S.’s operations don’t fit with neither domestic nor international law.
Ignoring Who Qassem Suleimani Was
I think that a revealing aspect of the weakness of her argument is how she writes that “only the very highest ranking militia leaders could be considered combatants at all times – and even then, under Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, those people should not be attacked when sick, wounded, or surrendering.” And she then argues this standard was not likely met for the killing of Osama Bin Laden.
Why go to the Bin Laden killing? I don’t seem to recall he was sick, wounded, and pretty sure he was not surrendering.
Additionally, I won’t dismiss the angle raised of “militia” – i.e. non-state actor – while Suleimani, as we know, was a state actor. But Carpenter evades better understanding who Qassem Suleimani was. It would’ve undermined her argument. Suleimani was not just a high-ranking official of a state. He was the leader of a terrorist organization as designated by the U.S., and de-facto, he was very much considered at the very highest leadership positions of “militant”/”terrorist” organizations such as Hezbollah. It would’ve been disrespectful and cynical from my end to think an intelligent person such as Professor Carpenter did not knowingly choose to put it aside. Then again, I suspect Carpenter would’ve probably asked for an official declaration, status, of him holding such a position; and if given that, she’d dismiss it as not good enough in order to continue to hold her position.
As much as I can respect her opinion in being opposed to any and all forms of “named killings”, et cetera, I very much dislike it when people – especially highly knowledgeable ones such as herself – disguise an argument piece as what was supposed to be an analysis piece. On top of that, to lay out such an under-level and quite a hollow argument is to add insult to injury.
Daniel L Byman (2020) Iran Can Find a New Suleimani (Foreign Policy)
Original review publication date: 23 November 2020
Byman’s intelligent and responsible input. Qassem Suleimani was valuable but not irreplaceable or indispensable.
Details of the Reviewed Article
Title: Iran Can Find a New Suleimani
By: Daniel L. Byman
Publication: Foreign Policy
Published: January 2020
Notes, insights & remarks:
I agree with the points that Byman notes and his argument. It strikes me as intelligent, judicious, not the nowadays often too common situation in which even renowned professionals haste to make conclusions or shoot for some pompous arguments.
Points worth noting from Byman’s piece:
Byman notes that there is the “one of the strongest arguments” by scholars, experts and U.S. gov’t officials that Qassem Suleimani was an extremely experienced, skilled and talented person, and that “Iran faces a shortage of human capital” (as Andrew Exum, former Obama administration official, was quoted). Therefore, they suggest Iran won’t be able to find ‘as good’ replacement to fill Suleimani’s position. Byman disagrees, stating it is an exaggeration to go as far as to suggest Sulemani was irreplaceable/indispensable. I concur.
So Byman explains:
Iran is a big country, with many security personnel. As talented and skilled as Suleimani was, they have a sufficient pool of talents – i.e. even if by a state’s standards they do have an overall shortage.
Everybody would be wise not to exaggerate about the harm done by killing Suleimani. Although Byman does not refer to research, I add that this is because research about targeted killings and leadership decapitation finds that the older, bigger and more institutionalized the organization is, then usually, the lesser of a damaging impact the killing causes.
We indeed saw a rapid statement by Iran that Qaani, who was Suleimani’s deputy, was chosen to be the successor – supporting Byman’s argument.
I absolutely agree with Byman and this is a quote worth keeping (my emphasis): “Suleimani’s successor, his deputy Brig. Gen. Esmail Qaani, will of course bring different skills and talents to the position. But he’ll inherit existing networks and institutions that were not solely reliant on the man who helped build them.”
Moreover, Byman emphasized that analysts should not compare the killing of Sunni jihadist leaders like Bin Laden and al-Baghdadi to the killing of Suleimani because such organizations rely heavily on such charismatic leaders. That is, Byman basically reinforces the point that this is a State, that’s even tougher than an old and institutionalized organized armed group.
Furthermore, historical examples like when Israel killed Abbas Musawi, who was the leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah, appeared smart because he was charismatic and a capable person. However, after his killing, his successor, “Hassan Nasrallah, turned out to be one of the most charismatic and competent militant leaders of our time.” So again, while talent might be limited, you don’t even need to be a state-sized organization to have enough people to fill voids. Also, a state organization does not need a charismatic leader as much as non-state actors.
For domestic and international purposes of branding a person, Iran ran its propaganda for Suleimani. It would likely do the same for Qaani now. So this is also another reason why Iran can make a new Suleimani.
And I agree. Iran can shoot for something like: ‘the student becomes the master.’
Caveat, I’d add is that while I agree that there is no reason to think Suleimani was irreplaceable, who would’ve thought Imad Mughniyeh was (as so many experts believe)? In the end, there’s always a chance that for some reason, the overall circumstances would result as such that in historical perspectives, experts would conclude none was able to fill the void left by the killing of Suleimani. Still, such situations are anomalies.