Roger Cohen observes that “the current accountability void for U.S. targeted killing is unacceptable.” Where to begin?

For one thing, the “accountability void” for U.S. violence in general is pretty unacceptable, too. Like, say, Gitmo. Or torture. Or illegal wars. Or the hiring of mercenaries. The mercenaries themselves. I could go on…

So really, Roger Cohen is saying that the U.S. needs to set high standards for assassination. From your “liberal” New York Times.

I’ll cut him some slack: he deplores the revenge pathology informing U.S. and Israeli violence in the so-called “GWOT.” He is rightly critical of the predator drone program.

It’s not clear how you get on a list to be eliminated; who makes that call; whether the decision is based on past acts (revenge, say, for the killing of C.I.A. agents in Khost, Afghanistan) or only on corroborated intelligence demonstrating that the target is planning a terrorist attack; what, if any, the battlefield limits are; and what, if any, is the basis in law

Fretting about the “messy trail” of evidence left by the Mossad agents who murdered Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai, he criticizes the “insufficient grounds for extrajudicial execution” that Israel used to rationalize the hit. And he rightly notes that “Fear cannot be a global license for the United States of America to kill.”

Revenge killings don’t pass the test for me. They’re unacceptable under international law. I want to know that any target is selected because there is verifiable intelligence that he’s actively planning a terrorist attack on the United States or its allies; that the danger is pressing; that arrest is impossible; and that civilian lives are not wantonly risked.

How does that square with his endorsement of pre-emptive targeted killing? Or to be more blunt, assassination driven by fear someone will hurt us. Maybe, just maybe the reason for those Ford-era bans on assassination by U.S. agents lies in the very dynamic of fear, revenge and faulty-to-false information such plots entail.

Conservative proponents of this tactic can rightly fault Cohen for expecting targeted killings to commence only when information on the target is accurate and the threat is clear. That’s an impossible standard. War is always foggy. Predator drones are not magic bullets, they actually put thousands of miles between assassins and their targets. Which is why at least one third of drone killings are civilians. And to be more fair, there are conservative opponents of drone strikes:

These strikes violate Pakistani sovereignty, ignore the stated demands of Pakistani authorities, often cause some civilian casualties, deepen the distrust and alienation of the civilian population in the western regions of Pakistan (and turn more of the Pakistani public against the U.S.), and for all those reasons they tend to be strategically counterproductive. They cause much of the same diplomatic and political damage that the apparent Israeli involvement in Mabhouh’s assassination is causing now. The difference is that the damage is being done in Pakistan instead of in Europe. Pakistan’s government complains, and we ignore it.

In other words, the Obama administration is digging the U.S. even further into the hole its predecessor cratered throughout the past decade. Liberals and conscientious conservatives need to stop fooling themselves that wars can be conducted humanely or “strategically” in some “hearts and minds” sense. We need to cut our losses.

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