Assassinations: Sarajevo to Baghdad


Assassinating a foreign government official is an act of war. That’s what we just did in Baghdad. In 1914, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo sparked World War I. Now the only thing that can prevent the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad from sparking war is Iran’s restraint. Irony, any one?

Declaration of War

The Constitution says only Congress can declare war. Article I, Section 8 enumerates many powers reserved to Congress including the power “To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water…” Despite that clear reservation of war powers to Congress, presidents have waged undeclared wars, including the “police action” in Korea and the war in Vietnam.

The undeclared war in Vietnam lasted for more than a decade and cost more than three million Vietnamese lives, two-thirds of whom were civilians, as well as the lives of some 57,000+ U.S. soldiers. After the secret U.S. bombing of Cambodia was revealed, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution to place explicit limits on presidential war-mongering. Then-president Richard Nixon vetoed the War Powers Resolution. Congress overrode that veto, re-passing the War Powers Resolution with a two-thirds majority.

Trump’s order for the assassination of a foreign government official—Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani —is the latest in a parade of illegal presidential acts of war. As Oren Hathaway, professor of international law at Yale, wrote:

“Any significant military action requires legal authority under both domestic and international law. Normally, domestic law would require the president to seek the approval of Congress, usually through a law authorizing the use of military force (after all, the Constitution gives Congress, not the president, the power to “declare war”). International law would also require him to seek the approval of the United Nations Security Council before resorting to force, unless the host state consents (which it did not) or the action qualifies for the express, but narrow, self-defense exception. Trump did not seek approval in either forum.”

The president may, under the Constitution, defend the nation against imminent attacks. The administration has presented absolutely no evidence of such a threat from Soleimani.

Assassination Forbidden by U.S. Law

Not only is assassination of a foreign leader an act of war, it is an act forbidden by U.S. law. Jeremy Scahill summarizes the succession of executive orders forbidding assassination:

“In 1976, following Church Committee recommendations regarding allegations of assassination plots carried out by U.S. intelligence agencies, Ford signed an executive order banning ‘political assassination.’ Jimmy Carter subsequently issued a new order strengthening the prohibition by dropping the word “political” and extending it to include persons ’employed by or acting on behalf of the United States.’ In 1981, Ronald Reagan signed Executive Order 12333, which remains in effect today. The language seems clear enough: ‘No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.’”

Trump is not the first president to flout the limits set by the War Powers Resolution. President George H.W. Bush may have been authorized to conduct war on Iraq by the October 16, 2002, joint resolution authorizing the use of U.S. armed forces against Iraq (House Joint Resolution 114), but Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all conducted extensive military operations in foreign countries without declarations of war. Congress repeatedly refused to exert its authority under the War Powers Resolution or to rein in military operations. We remain at war, a war undeclared and unauthorized and unending, escalating daily in multiple countries around the world.

Assassination is prohibited by U.S. law. Still our presidents do it. “Targeted drone strikes” are assassinations, whether carried out by Bush or by Obama or by Trump.

And so we have come to the present moment. The assassination of an Iranian general is an act of war. The bomb strike at a Baghdad airport is a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. The president has ordered thousands of U.S. troops to the Middle East. He threatens, via Twitter, to strike

“52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!”

It is time to call the president to account. Some in Congress are trying to do so:

“Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, introduced a resolution on Friday invoking the War Powers Act that would a force a debate and vote in Congress to prevent further escalation of hostilities with Iran.

“Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, and Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, said in a statement that they would resurrect legislation to prohibit any funding for offensive military force in or against Iran without prior congressional authorization.”

In 2007, Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote “Pity the Nation,” which includes these lines:

Pity the nation that raises not its voice
          Except  to praise conquerers
       And acclaim the bully as hero
          And aims to rule the world
              By force and by torture

Our task is to change the nation. In whatever ways we can, we must speak and act to stop the travesty that continues to escalate into every-widening, ever more deadly war.

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