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Viewpoint: Should We Just Kill Him?

As tempting as it may be, assassination is a bad idea

By J.F.O. McAllister

Time cover

(TIME, November 24) -- We should kill him," says former White House aide George Stephanopoulos. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls for a "head shot" against Saddam. . And why not? While murder is always morally suspect, especially if it's ordered up in a conference room, Saddam just might be the exception to the rule. His power flows not from the consent of his people but from firing squads and torture chambers. He has ordered the death of tens of thousands and used cyanide, nerve gas and mustard gas against Iranians and Iraqi Kurds. Trained as an assassin--while a young man he took part in a 1959 attempt on the Iraqi Prime Minister--he once ordered a hit on George Bush. He has tried to build atom bombs and, U.N. inspectors believe, he is working to amass a stock of nerve gas and germ weapons. Finally--and this is crucial--he himself is the problem. Iraq experts agree that any successor, no matter how thuggish, would be less powerful, less malevolent, less dangerous. Isn't it moral--as with Hitler in 1938--to take this one life before he takes thousands more, or hundreds, or even one?

Privately, many Arab officials and dissident Iraqis urge assassination on their American contacts as the cleanest way to return Iraq to some kind of normality. But Executive Order 12333, issued by Ronald Reagan, says that "no person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination." The prohibition grew out of widespread disgust over disclosures of U.S. plots to kill Castro and a scheme to depose Chile's President Salvador Allende that helped lead to his death.

In general, the ban on government-backed assassination is good policy. It is often ignorance and hubris that make a President fixate on getting rid of one irksome foreigner as a solution to deeply rooted problems. But a James Bond-style directive is not the only way a President can grant a license to kill. In 1986 Reagan bombed Libyan "terrorist-related targets" that happened to be places where Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was often present. During the Gulf War, coalition forces attacked Saddam's palaces and bunkers. Now the Pentagon is ready with a new list of his hangouts. And if Clinton wanted to send a sniper instead of a cruise missile, he could amend Executive Order 12333.

But he won't, because the biggest obstacles to killing Saddam aren't moral or legal but practical. It's not smart for the U.S., which has a huge stake in world order, to be seen as resorting to a little terror of its own. Unintended consequences often flow from clever plans. Recall Pan Am 103, blown out of the sky allegedly by Libyan agents after Gaddafi almost died from Reagan's bombs.

Saddam remains one of the world's most difficult targets. He moves constantly, uses doubles, runs his food through chemical analyzers, kills close associates and even his in-laws to keep others off guard, and employs a ruthlessly loyal security force that has quashed multiple coup attempts since 1991. Richard Haass, who directed Middle Eastern affairs at the National Security Council during the Gulf War, says, "I have yet to see anything remotely persuasive about how you could take out Saddam. A wish is not a policy." One suggestion: million-dollar rewards have helped the U.S. catch foreign terrorists by giving their confederates an incentive to snitch. What about $500 million, the cost of only 400 cruise missiles, for delivering Saddam to a war-crimes tribunal?

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