Does Targeted Killing ‘Work’?

Sometimes governments choose policies not because they work but because they can con the public into thinking that they work.

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Christopher Mott makes the case for restoring normal relations with Venezuela:

Danielle Pletka wants you to know that she thinks targeted killing “works”:

Targeted killing has become a tool of statecraft because it works, in the sense that it achieves the limited goals prescribed: A key individual, critical to an enemy’s agenda, is gone. It will not end Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but it can slow it down. It will not end Iran’s missile program, but it will cause many Iranians who might have signed up to think twice about the risks.

As with anything a government does, when someone says that something “works” our first question should always be, “works to do what?” Do sanctions work? If the goal is to impoverish and starve people, then they work very well in their cruel, sadistic way. If it is to achieve constructive changes in policy or changes in regime, they usually never work. The same goes for assassinations, as our government’s practice of targeted killing with drones should have already taught us long ago. Killing someone at the top can temporarily disrupt a terrorist organization, but in practice it tends to make that organization more dangerous and radical. Leaders can be replaced, and others will step up to fill the role that the dead men had. Short-term “successes” often lead to long-term failure. The entire “war on terror” is a huge, bloody cautionary tale that you cannot kill your way out of these problems.

Can a government successfully target and kill specific individuals? Obviously, it can. Does that achieve anything beyond murdering those people? That is much less clear. In the case of Israeli assassinations of Iranian officials and scientists, these tactics backfire all the time. Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapons program, but today it is closer to having one than it was just a few years ago because of Israeli assassination and sabotage attacks. If Iran ever does build a nuclear weapon, it will have to send the Mossad a gift basket for helping to encourage them to go all the way.

Read the rest of the article at SubStack

Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

39 thoughts on “Does Targeted Killing ‘Work’?”

  1. The United States and Israel are involved in targeted killings. They temporarily stop suicide bombings but escalate afterwards. Donald Trump’s drone strike against Soleimani and Israel’s assassination of Iranian Scientists make Iran more determined to develop nuclear weapons to keep the US, Israel and other enemies out of its territory, the weapons would be deterrents to declaring war on Iran.

    1. Except Iran isn’t developing nuclear weapons. Confirmed over and over again since 2002-3. That is the stupidity of the policies against Iran. Iran is a scapegoat, used to justify whatever Israel wants to do. Attack Syria? No, actually attacking “Iranian proxies in Syria.” Attack Iraq? No, “Iranian proxies in Iraq.” Iran confirmed to be following JCPOA? Who cares, walk away from it. Next president: return to it? No. Why not? Because reasons, that’s why.

  2. Does she think anyone working in those same fields in the US should be fair game too?

    1. No, but if the Iranians began assassinating US weapons scientists we couldn’t in good faith complain. Not that that would stop us. The real problem is assassination is a poor mans game. US hitmen maybe 3X better than anybody else but that is a slim margin compared to how much better than anybody else the US Navy is.

      1. Um, the US wouldn’t complain?

        The US doesn’t have any enemies; so, what use is the Navy? It doesn’t matter who is killed. None of it serves US interests.

        US interests would be in stopping the illegal drug flow, but no one cares about that. The military is just used to make private parties rich at the expense of the US military.

  3. Evidence suggests it doesn’t. Plus if you manage to kill all the upper management who do you negotiate with?

    1. The idea is the government wants to kill those they can’t bribe or otherwise control, or who otherwise get in the way.

  4. A bit judgie, aren’t we? In the violent, dirty world of terror, all bets and rules are off. The enemy plays dirty, we play dirty. What morality is there in the business of terror? Our enemies behead, blow up, hack to death, drag naked and lifeless through the streets, drown and burn alive their enemies. And we do what? Drone a few, detain and then RELEASE 735 of them and put a few others on ‘trial?’ Oooh, scary! Grow up. These games are for keeps. Islamists believe we are all ‘kafir,’ the lowest thing on planet earth: ‘non-believers,’ ‘deceivers.’ They believe it is their holy duty to kill us, enslave us, tax us, rape us, marry us and otherwise subjugate us. Until all Islamists are dead or no longer have the means or will to kill us we must defend ourselves by any means necessary. Sharia Muslims believe in THEOCRACY, which is antithetical to our Constitution and laws. There is ZERO compatibility between our Judeo/Christian ethic and the laws of Sharia Islam. Killing stops the person who dies and has a real as well as subconscious effect on those connected to the deceased. It is a war of attrition. There are no ‘winners’ in war, only losers. The last losers survive.

      1. And that’s the most polite response possible to “Mister Granger.”

    1. Terrorist is another country’s freedom fighters. When there is no organized military faction, and countries with sophisticated weapons kill at will, revenge is on the menu. The cycle goes on and on.

      Speaking of those wanting a theocracy, do a little research into what is really happening in the U.S. of A. Chris Hedges wrote a piece in Scheerpost concerning what he sees is the rise of Christian fascism in the U.S..

      1. Christian fascism? That’s absurd. Antifa are the shock troops of the corporations, the real fascists. Why did they attack those who opposed vaxes? because the vax was profit.

        Anarchotyranny: Antifa attack the enemies of the elite, without consequence. Because only the rich and the managerial elite have rights.

    2. What is “Judeo-Christian ethic”? If you said that in Israel, they’d ban you from future entry and label you a Nazi.

      The three religions are not the same religion. And each is similarly different from the others.

      1. You know what the Judeo/Christian ethic is, and so do Israelis. You also know that Israel has a secular government, not a religion-based government. So what is your point? The three religions worship the same God. Muhammad was raised by a woman who taught him about Judaism and Christianity. Muhammad chose one from column A and two from column B and then came up with his own spiel that more closely appealed to non-Christians and non-Jews. Now, according to Sharia Law, we are all ‘kafir,’ the lowest thing on planet earth to a Sharia Islamist. According to their interpretation of Islam, they may kill us, enslave us, rape us, tax us and otherwise subjugate us simply because we do not think or believe the way they do.

        1. It’s technically blasphemy to say it’s the same god. Bush claimed it’s the same, but it was not received well.

          Muslims and Christians both have treated nonbelievers poorly in the past; both call for conversions. Christians have tended to enslave the non, as was done in the Americas. Muslims are also fond of slavery and the jizya.

          Jews, we’re not supposed to speak on them. It’s seen as “hatred” to say they aren’t perfect, but I may say anything about Muslims and Christians, which shows who is in power.

          One of the major differences is Jews don’t seek converts. But Christians see Christians as the true Israel. That’s how the actual religions are, not this fantasy stuff tv people say.

          Now, I’m quite glad official slavery is gone. I hope it stays gone for a good while. But the three religions are equally different. There is no argument for aligning two on one, at least not as you’re making it. I don’t think you’d like my writing out more.

          1. Do you realize that Christians believe in the Old Testament – the Jewish Bible? Do you know that Jesus was an Essene Priest and heir to the David throne? Do you know that Jews regard Jesus in his historical context? The “Judeo/Christian ethic” refers to the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, etc. I love it when non-Christians try to tell us about our religion. The Reader’s Digest version doesn’t cut it. And as for slavery, it is alive and well and living in the Arab and Sharia Islamist world. It is not ‘blasphemy’ to say three major religions worship the same god, the God of Abraham. It’s true. You can look that up.

          2. Pauline “Christians” believe in the parts of the Old Testament (and the New Testament) that they find convenient. Matthew 5:18? Not so much.

          3. Christ was perfect in his generations, but the people who call themselves Jews today do not regard Him as the son of God. The Talmud speaks especially poorly of Him.

            Let me flip this on you, in the Middle East, whom do Christians side with?

            Anyway, you’re not Christian if you believe we all worship the same god. In a sense, you could really say the Mormons are another new religion; perhaps the Druze are yet another. So, it could be said there are multiple Abrahamic faiths. But the relationship isn’t as you believe. Each believes all others are heretical.

            There is no special status for the one that claims to be the oldest. And I seriously doubt any, today, are perfect in their generations.

          4. Wow. You really don’t know anything about Judaism, Christianity or Islam, do you? Abraham much?

          5. You’re Israeli and want to argue Christians have a duty to fund the killing of Christians in the Middle East for Israel.

            As I said though, there is no duty for Christians to serve. Christians are Israel, today. You don’t seem to understand how Christians view Jews.

            Anyway, I certainly hope all can get along, but there is no natural pairing; and a Christian would want all to convert.

          6. Not even close. I am Christian who understands my religion and its roots. Jesus was a Jewish Essene priest and disputed heir to the David throne. His association with zealots and his changing of Jewish traditional worship cause a ripple in society at the time which dealt him his fate and created one of the most influential movements the world has ever seen. Jews and Christians are bound together in belief through Abraham and the Old Testament. So, too is Islam bound with Judaism and Christianity through Abraham, and the fact that Muhammad was raised by a woman who taught him both religions. Israel is a secular society with layers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

          7. Paul followed Christ. What does that make Paul?

            Secondly, Jews today don’t follow the same rules determining who is Jewish. So, that group is not the same as before.

            If Christians had a duty to serve anyone in the region, it would be to aid, as equals, the Mid East Christians, from the Copts of Egypt, to the Assyrians, to the Armenians, etc.

            Anyway, if you want to debate someone, Pastor Chuck Baldwin used to be a Zionist. He’s been to Israel, seen what’s done to Christians there. Just send him an email.

          8. “Paul followed Christ.”

            Paul created a new pagan religion using Christ as a figurehead and the parts of Christ’s story he liked as doctrine, and changing the parts of Christ’s story that he found inconvenient to suit that new religion.

          9. Always remember : RELIGIONS, any Religion is MEN’s worst and most dangerous Invention ever !!

        2. “According to their interpretation of Islam, they may kill us, enslave us, rape us, tax us and otherwise subjugate us simply because we do not think or believe the way they do.”

          As if that’s unique to Islam. For the Jewish equivalents, see the Bible. For the Christian equivalents, see the entire 11th to 16th centuries.

          1. The 11th Century was RECLAMATION from the Islamic hoards. Islam came at the point of a sword. Christianity came BACK. Christians and Jews suffered 1,500 years of subjugation by Muslims. Now they are BACK.

  5. Targeted Killings “blossom” in all shapes and colours. Just look at the working methods of the CIA and the SNIPER actions of the Middle East most active Terrorist State ISRAHELL !!

  6. Pletka was a staff writer for Sun Myung Moon’s Insight Magazine from 1987-1992.

  7. Scary thing about targeting killing: big data means enough can be learned for the government to try that here, in the US, against political opponents.

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