A new column by M. Reza Behnam, Ph.D., a political scientist whose specialities include American foreign policy and the history, politics and governments of the Middle East.
“War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement.” James Madison, 1793
Donald Trump was impeached, but acquitted, for extorting a foreign government to advance his reelection and for obstructing Congress’s inquiry into his political shenanigans.
He should, however, have been impeached and convicted for exploits far more serious: assassinating Iranian General Qassem Suleimani and his Iraqi counterpart, Mahdi al-Muhandis, abetting Saudi Arabia in its lethal bombing campaign in Yemen, and starving Iranians and Venezuelans with crippling economic sanctions. Congress has, in effect, avowed that bribing officials of a foreign government is impeachable, but killing them is tolerable.
Owing to America’s history of extrajudicial killings, Trump believed he had the power to order a death sentence outside the purview of Congress.
With the exception of the 1975 Senate Select Committee, chaired by Idaho Senator Frank Church, little has stood in the way of interventionist presidents. Church’s committee concluded that the CIA had attempted to assassinate the leaders of Cuba, the Congo, the Dominican Republic, Chile and South Vietnam. It recommended that Congress outlaw assassinations.
To counter congressional action and maintain executive agency, President Gerald Ford signed Executive Order 11905 in 1976, which reads: “No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.” Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan issued similar executive orders.
According to these executive orders—still in effect—the extrajudicial execution of political opponents, in peacetime and in war, is illegal and a violation of existing norms. However, U.S. administrations have used circuitous terminology and logic to circumvent prohibitions and to legitimize political killings.
Since September 11, 2001, the term “targeted killing” has crept into political and public discourse to legitimize America’s execution of non-state political adversaries. U.S. administrations have contended that the prohibition against political assassinations does not preclude taking action against terrorists. Seldom questioned, however, is who has designated the United States to be the singular and decisive power to define terrorism and identify terrorists.
Former presidents took the ban on assassinations into account and attempted to develop rationales to overcome legal obstacles. Trump did not. The Trump administration acted unlawfully—committed a crime—when it killed a military leader of a country the United States is not at war with, based on questionable, unsupported claims that Suleimani posed an “imminent threat.”
Invasions, regime change, assassinations, sanctions and threats have been tools of U.S. foreign policy for decades.
The international exploits of U.S. presidents have often been shameful. Instead of impeachment or censure, presidents have been heralded with eponymous libraries, showered with million dollar book deals, and honored in death.
According to U.S. intelligence, Russia intervened in the 2016 U.S. election. Ironically, the United States has been interfering in other countries’ elections since the Second World War.
From Truman to Trump, American presidents have taken the United States to terrible places based on false narratives. They have orchestrated the overthrow of more than 40 governments, putting in place despots palatable to U.S. political and corporate interests. Acting on the premise of self-defense, presidents have ordered lethal operations against leaders they found unacceptable.
Over the past century, the executive branch has amassed power while the legislative branch has ceded it. Congress must assert its power by making clear that starving people, deposing governments, ordering assassinations and initiating wars are serious offenses that call for impeachment. Sadly, until then, the longstanding injustices and brutalities of American foreign policy will not end.
(c) 2020, Dr. M. Reza Behnam