The appropriately-named Anne-Marie Slaughter makes the case for killing tyrants in the latest Foreign Affairs. Her arguments are certainly not new, although they are unusual these days:

In acting against such regimes, the Security Council ought to target individuals, not countries, and impose sanctions that are personal and harshly punitive—sometimes even lethal. Instead of debating whether to employ military force against Iraq, the Security Council should have sought Saddam’s indictment by an international criminal tribunal as a perpetrator of war crimes, crimes against peace, and crimes against humanity and authorized his capture and rendering for trial by any means possible. If the United States can offer $25 million for the capture of al Qaeda operative Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, surely the United Nations could offer double or triple that for bringing Saddam to justice. As an absolute last resort, it should have authorized the use of deadly force in the efforts to capture him—either by his own people or by the agents of foreign governments.

The United Nations offering bounties? Authorizing the use of deadly force against individuals? This course of action no doubt seems shocking. But had the United Nations followed it in Iraq instead of imposing sanctions over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of lives might have been saved—both innocent Iraqi citizens and the foreign soldiers sent to remove Saddam from power. Sanctions harmed the Iraqi people but left the government intact. And the use of massive military force, no matter how careful the planning and targeting, inevitably kills civilians as well as soldiers. In confronting the threats posed by dangerous dictators, the world needs not smart bombs but a smart strategy.

One of the ironies of the age of nationalism is that we have de-personalized war. Centuries ago, kings led their troops into battle personally and faced death. Now, the Saddam Husseins of the world can risk war with impunity because, really, what do they care if a few thousand of their subjects are killed in the process? Clearly, killing Saddam was an implicit aim of the recent war. Perhaps it should be more explicit in the future.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Kelli says:

    I too read Ms Slaughter’s piece and, have to say, was left speechless by the argument. On the one hand, I respected her boldness: there’s no messing around here with fancy diplo-speak. Kill the tyrants. Simple enough. On the other hand, who the f*** does she think she is? I am personally opposed to the death penalty, because I question the moral basis upon which it rests. Can even a representative democracy take the life of a citizen? On a practical level, I just don’t think good but flawed systems of justice and retribution can be relied upon 100% of the time, and if it’s not absolutely reliable it cannot be done. Sure, I’d be willing to pull the switch on the DC snipers, but those kind of cases are few and far between and we can’t rest an entire justice system upon them, however much we might want to.

    So, if the state, which I recognize and have a say (however small) about the composition of, lacks the authority to slay vicious criminals, where on earth would the UN derive such power? What would the bar be for a death penalty? Would a panel of experts devise a calculus of misery or tyranny, into which “raw data” would be fed on a continuous basis by UN bureaucrats, until a red ball descends and the hit squad is despatched? Would a certain number of people need to be killed, or a percentage of the population? What sort of proof would be accepted? Could you kill rulers who are just plain incompetent or corrupt? How about Mugabe? Does it count if you just bankrupt a once-prosperous land, kill opponents and slowly starve rival groups? Are we going to get a pre-crime unit that will predict when things are going on a downward spiral, or do we have to wait for the body count to rise?

    Really, this proposal is too stupid to be entertained, especially in the aftermath of the UN debacle of the past 6 months.

    But tell us what you really think, right?

  2. James Joyner says:


    All legitimate concerns. But, remember, she is proposing this as an alternative to war. In wars, of course, hundreds if not thousands die. And the same people/bodies/institutions that would make the decision to “take out” a bad guy are the same ones who decide to initiate war. So it’s the same problems multiplied by factors of 100s or 1000s.