Features | Security | South Asia

Rule of Law or Law of the Jungle?

The US has set a dangerous precedent by ordering the killing of bin Laden. But it’s not too late to save American foreign policy.

By Patrick Seale for

The execution of Osama bin Laden on May 1 by a team of US Navy Seals sends a brutal message to the world that the extermination of the United States’ enemies takes precedence over any consideration of morality or international law. For daring to attack the United States, al-Qaeda’s founder had to be hunted down and exterminated, however long it took and at whatever the cost. Might is right.

Other governments will note the example set by the United States—an example that might also be copied by non-state actors, and even by aggrieved citizens. After all, Americans aren’t alone in having national interests, legitimate grievances and enemies they wish to bury. Others, too, can claim the right of self-defence, overriding legal or ethical constraints.  

Israel has been doing so for decades. As a matter of deliberate policy, it has carried out numerous extra-judicial killings of its political enemies, and appears to have no qualms about violating the sovereignty of other countries. In a recent blog, US lawyer John Whitbeck reports that Gen. Shaul Mofaz, a former Israeli chief of staff known for his tough tactics, has claimed the credit for inspiring the US assassination strategy. Mofaz is now chairman of the Knesset’s foreign affairs committee.

If states can resort to terrorism with impunity in order to kill their enemies, political leaders must be prepared to face the same rough ‘justice’ at the hands of the followers, friends or relatives of their victims. What if a hit team of Iraqi Baathists, for example, seeking to avenge the wanton destruction of their party, their army and their country, were to track down the orchestrators of the Iraq War? Would that be terrorism or justice? What if a Pashtun tribal leader were to decide that the director of the CIA should be targeted for the drone attacks that have killed hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians in the tribal areas of Pakistan? Would that be terrorism or justice?

Would the United States not have been better served had it upheld the rule of law in Abbottabad rather than resorting to the law of the jungle?

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Terrible and tragic as was the fate of the 3,000 victims of 9/11, they aren’t the only ones to be mourned. In seeking to punish bin Laden’s al-Qaeda for its attack on America’s heartland, the United States waged wars on Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan—wars that are thought to have caused, by some estimates, about a million deaths, not to mention the wounded and the displaced, and all those whose lives have been shattered by the massive disturbance and material destruction of these conflicts. The dead from these misguided wars cry out for vengeance from the grave. Whether they are Iraqis, Afghans or Pakistanis, they, too, are mourned.

Just as the United States’ alleged torture of ‘unlawful combatants’ in Iraq and elsewhere gave a blank cheque to Arab tyrants and others to torture their own citizens, so the assassination of America’s number one enemy will encourage others to resort to the same lawless methods.

Accounts differ, but one Pakistani intelligence official said bin Laden appears to have been gunned down in front of his family, including his 12-year-old daughter. Contrary to initial reports, bin Laden doesn’t seem to have hidden behind his family, or to have used them as human shields. He was, according to a statement from the White House, unarmed. Images released from within the compound show people surrounded by pools of blood, but no weapons. Bin Laden may have been loathed and feared as a terrorist, but many will see the way he was shot as a ‘hit’— an assassination pure and simple.

Couldn’t US Special Forces have surrounded his house, once they had discovered where he was hiding, and asked the Pakistani authorities to arrest him and hand him over for trial? That would have had the great advantage of not violating Pakistani sovereignty and of not causing grave offence to the Pakistani Army and intelligence services, as well as to public opinion in that country. Pakistani officials have described the US raid as ‘unauthorised and unilateral’, while the army has warned that any repeat of such an operation would affect relations with the United States. It’s likely that Pakistan will now reduce its anti-terrorist cooperation with the United States and seek instead to strengthen its ties with China. It will certainly continue to befriend Afghan jihadist groups so as to have allies there to defend its cause against India once US forces withdraw.

US President Barack Obama, for his part, has made a meal out of this shabby episode. We were told that he took the ‘gutsy’ decision to attack the compound where bin Laden was living, and images have been released of Obama following the assassination in real time. He visited Ground Zero, paid tribute to the fire-fighters, and decorated the Navy Seals. His popularity has soared and his chances of re-election may have been greatly enhanced.

In my (no doubt minority) view, Obama must now redeem himself for the killing by putting his heightened prestige to good effect. He should announce an early withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, call a halt to drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen; and invite China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran to form an Afghan contact group to sponsor urgent and intensive negotiations between President Hamid Karzai’s government and the Taliban, with a view to the formation of a national unity government. It would also be greatly to the United States’ advantage—both politically and financially—to reduce its military presence in the Arab world. Its many bases in the Gulf, in particular, serve little purpose. They merely exacerbate local tensions, especially those between the Arabs and Iran.

Above all, if the United States is to regain some goodwill in the Arab and Muslim world, Obama must have the courage to stand up to Israel’s right-wing government and its many American friends and lobbyists. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is due in Washington later this month and has been invited to address a joint session of Congress. This should be Obama’s opportunity to upstage him with a clear statement that the United States will use all its influence and all its power to bring to birth a viable and independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, with its capital in East Jerusalem, living in peace and security side-by-side with Israel.

The US president knows very well what needs to be done, but he must be ready to use his new-found political capital to draw the poison from a conflict that has claimed countless victims and plagued the world for more than six decades. It is, after all, the United States’ failure to do so that helps create the bin Laden’s of this world.

Patrick Seale is a London-based writer.