I was in Minnesota today speaking about counterterrorism and homeland security at a forum organized by Minnesota Public Radio and the William Mitchell College of Law. The site was the Mall of America, the gargantuan combination of shopping center and amusement park on the outskirts of the Twin Cities. Step outside the auditorium where the event was held and you are standing next to a roller coaster. One of the themes voiced by our panel, which also included Eric Schmitt of the New York Times and Juliette Kayyem of Harvard University, was the continuing possibility of prospective terrorists, including American “lone wolves,” taking advantage of the inherent vulnerability of many open public spaces in the United States. Another theme was the difficulty in cultivating public understanding of terrorism in a way that accepts prudent precaution while avoiding overreaction to whatever terrorist incidents do occur. A reflection of some of the issues raised by both themes was a question from one member of the audience: “Why did we get searched when we came in here?”—referring to a search of bags when entering the auditorium, not the mall.
We should not be surprised if more individuals who decide to turn to indiscriminate violence, perhaps taking a page from the book of the “D.C.sniper” who terrorized the Washington area a few years ago, exploit the openness of those public spaces. The reason for such a turn could be anything, but most likely it would be the anger over U.S. policies abroad that was the chief motivation of other cases of American-bred terrorists over the past three years. We cannot track or trace most of the individuals who would do that because they have not yet turned to violence and we thus do not know who they are. The public spaces cannot operate in the intended way if they are not kept open. Shopping malls present prime terrorist opportunities, especially during seasons when they are especially crowded. The Mall of America, as one of the best known malls in the country, has been mentioned by foreign terrorists as a possible target and would not have escaped the notice of American lone wolves.
After our event I had the opportunity to talk with some of the mall's security staff. Their operation is big, as befitting a big and famous mall. They use sophisticated techniques for trying to spot sources of trouble early while minimizing disruption to the patrons' shopping and entertainment experiences. Based on what I heard, they are probably doing about as good a job as can be expected in making the facility they are charged with protecting as safe as possible. But with the unavoidable openness, they can only do so much. I will not be surprised if their protectee someday becomes too inviting a target for someone.
The sending of one hundred armed U.S. military advisers to assist governments in central Africa in eradicating the murderous band that calls itself the Lord's Resistance Army is the right thing to do. It is right despite the well-founded skepticism of many Americans, based on past experience, about overseas military missions intended to save non-American lives. The intervention in Somalia in the 1990s continues to serve as the poster child of humanitarian expeditions gone awry. This year's intervention by NATO in Libya, which had a humanitarian rationale, threatens to give such a rationale a bad name not because the mission went awry in the way Somalia did but because it was a partially disingenuous justification for a military intervention that from the beginning was more about regime change. And despite the self-congratulation that accompanied the toppling of Qaddafi, the Libya story has a long way to go.
It is even more understandable for war-weary Americans to be skeptical about the need for yet another overseas military deployment, however small and whatever the rationale. The specific circumstances involved in the mission against the LRA, however, make it worthwhile. One is that the humanitarian need is not to preclude feared future bloodshed, as was the case with arguments about what Qaddafi might do against Libyan civilians, but instead to bring to an end a long, horrifying record of atrocities.
The target of the intervention is not a regime, and so there is no chance of confusing the atrocity-curbing purpose of the mission with regime change. The only respectable response of the international community to the Lord's Resistance Army is to eradicate it. Because the target is not a regime, eradication would not involve the creation of vacuums or the need to establish a new order to replace one that has been removed. The LRA is a destroyer of order, not a provider of it.
And because there is not an issue of building a new order, there is not the risk of the initial mission transforming into something larger and more ambitious. If it looks like somewhat more than the one hundred people to be dispatched would do some good, the administration should be open to a modest enlargement without fear that this would be another step down a slippery slope into a quagmire.
The United States can go into this mission without being seriously suspected of ulterior motives beyond the declared purpose of ending atrocities and saving lives. About the only more selfish motive in play is the assuaging of guilt felt as a result of not doing more to avert the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. But that motive is excusable.
I was fortunate to be traveling or otherwise indisposed when the plot involving the used car salesman from Texas hit the airwaves; I felt no obligation to join in the inevitable, and mostly useless, instant short-order spasm of speculation as to what this implausible story is all about. Now that a couple of days of reactions have transpired, the reactions themselves are interesting to analyze. Most of them fit into already established patterns.
The incident is red meat, of course, for those hankering to keep the U.S.-Iranian relationship as acrimonious as possible and even to start a war with Iran. But the anti-Iranian agitators have had to display additional sophistic agility in the face of the reasons, which numerous skeptics have pointed out, to doubt that official Iran was responsible for this plot. The chief reason was the patent ineptitude of the plotters, which was at odds with the level of skill associated with the Iranian Quds force. So the agitators have had to argue that Iran may be a stumblebum but that stumblebums can still be dangerous.
Besides the matter of operational technique is the issue of motivation. If this affair were the work of the Iranian leadership, what did those leaders hope to accomplish? The early days of commentary have yet to come up with a plausible answer to that. The anti-Iran activists, in displaying another well-established pattern, fall back on the practice of dividing the world into terrorists and non-terrorists, pretending that the labeling of Iran as a terrorist state, and citing some of its past terrorist actions, are all that is needed. But states don't just do terrorism because it is somehow in their nature. If they perform a terrorist act it is to accomplish some identifiable purpose. Iran conducted assassinations in the 1980s and 1990s to eliminate expatriate Iranian dissidents. The terrorist acts it supported or sponsored against the United States were responses to U.S. military deployments. The terrorist operations in Argentina in the 1990s by its client Hezbollah were responses to specific Israeli acts in the Middle East.
The jumping immediately to recommendations to apply still more pressure on Iran, despite doubts about what Iran did or did not do, is also consistent with past agitation on the subject. This type of response is especially strange when the doubts and the reasons for them are acknowledged. The lead editorial in Thursday's Washington Post, for example, admits that “perhaps the doubters are right” but nonetheless calls for strong “countermeasures.” This treats the possibility that someone has performed an act as if it were the certainty that some portion of the act was performed. It is equivalent to reacting to a hung jury in a capital criminal case by saying that although we are not permitted to execute the defendant, some of the jurors thought he was guilty so let's put him in prison for a few years instead. This type of response is not only bizarre but also harmful in that it can lead others to regard the United States as a manipulative liar.
The agitators nevertheless, in another established pattern, charge ahead with calls for pressure and more pressure on Iran without even thinking about the consequences. A common explanation, heard within the last couple of days, of presumed Iranian motives for instigating a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador is that Iran already has been pinched by existing western sanctions and is striking back out of pain and frustration. If this is true, what should we expect from inflicting still more pain and frustration on the Iranians? More striking back.
Another salient feature of the plot as detailed by the Justice Department is that it appears to have been designed with the intention of being discovered. This is related to the overall inept tradecraft but in particular to the sending of traceable quantities of money into the United States and the spilling of beans about supposed Iranian government involvement in open telephone calls to untrustworthy foreigners. If the plot was intended to be discovered, then presumably the motive of whoever concocted it was to escalate further the tension between Iran and the United States. A couple of possible instigators outside Iran come to mind; the most plausible ones inside Iran would be rogue elements. Whoever the instigator was, for the United States to respond by pressuring Iran more, and thus raising further the tension in the relationship, would be playing right into the intentions of whoever put the plot together.
Perhaps the most disturbing response is that of the Obama administration. Analyzing what this government is up to is as useful in understanding what this episode is all about as analyzing what the Iranian government is up to. The administration's hyping of this strange case fits one more established pattern; it is operating in a reelection mode. Being in that mode means being determined to look just as tough on Iran as the next guy. This is similar to the determination to look just as friendly to Israel as the next guy—which is very much related to the need to look tough on Iran. The president certainly was talking tough about Iran on Thursday. However sympathetic one might be to the president's reelection bid, the administration is playing a hazardous game. First, by offering up this kind of red meat, it risks enabling the meat eaters to push the administration into even more dangerous actions toward Iran. Second, it lowers further the possibilities of improving the relationship and reaching deals with Iran. This is especially so if the Iranian leadership was not involved in this plot, in which case that leadership would have good and understandable reasons to consider the United States to be a liar. Third, it risks a big embarrassment and loss of U.S. credibility if further evidence turns up showing that the Iranian leadership was not involved.
The deal between Israel and Hamas to exchange captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for about 1,000 imprisoned Palestinians is one of the oh-so-rare bright spots in anything having to do with negotiations between Israel and Palestinians. The deal is good news, of course, for the prisoners on both sides being released and for their families. For the rest of us, the good news is that despite the strong and unrelenting animosity in both directions between the two parties that struck the deal, a deal was nonetheless struck. And this was a complex agreement. It involves a phased release of the Palestinian prisoners and a possible side agreement between Israel and Egypt, which played a mediating role, entailing an Israeli apology for the recent killing of Egyptian security personnel following a cross-border Palestinian raid.
The motives of the two parties to the agreement are not all pure. They both would like to sideline the Palestinian Authority and its leader Mahmoud Abbas. Isn't it ironic that such bitter adversaries as Hamas and Israel share an interest in sticking it to someone who has been an interlocutor to both? It is further ironic that the Israeli government, which has repeatedly avowed its refusal to have anything to do with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, is willing to strike a separate deal with Hamas itself.
Political and diplomatic conditions have evolved in ways that made a deal more feasible now than before. Abbas's statehood initiative at the United Nations, for example, may have given Netanyahu's government all the more incentive to make Abbas look irrelevant. Probably at least as important is that the Palestinians' turn to peaceful protest rather than violent resistance to Israeli occupation lessened Israeli concerns about future violence involving some of the released prisoners.
The main lesson from the prisoner swap deal is that even strong enmity between the parties does not preclude agreements, including complex agreements, if there is sufficient will to strike a deal. Yes, some of the final status issues that divide Israel and the Palestinians are inherently challenging, but the main impediment to a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian agreement is not the challenging nature of the issues but a lack of will to resolve them.
I was in Brussels today speaking at a conference on radicalization and jihadi terrorism. The host was the Royal Institute for International Relations, which is underwritten by the Belgian foreign ministry. The institute in recent years has taken on the alternative shorter name of the Egmont Institute, after the ornate palace where it holds its events, including today's conference. The builder and first resident of the Egmont Palace was a mid-sixteenth century Count of Egmont, who also was a legendary Flemish nationalist and warrior who met his death resisting Spanish rule. The drama of the count's life was the basis of a play by Goethe titled Egmont, for which Beethoven wrote incidental music, including the frequently performed overture. The setting of this palace was a fitting reminder of how long and extensive is the experience of people in this part of the world with threats to security and with finding ways to deal with them.
The ambassador who is head of the institute remarked to me in a private conversation that Americans seemed to him to have a “siege mentality”—a reference to U.S. responses on immigration, homeland security, aggressive counterterrorist measures and other matters. This was the observation of an official of Belgium, a country that has far more historical and geographic basis for feeling besieged than does the United States. If it wasn't the Habsburg rule that the Count of Egmont battled against, it was subjugation by the French to the south or the Dutch to the north, or Belgium being turned into a battlefield by great powers, including in the world wars of the twentieth century.
People in this part of the world, including European participants in the conference, being part of a culture that has developed amid that kind of history and is less encumbered than America by a twenty-first century siege mentality, are better able than Americans to see the downsides of that mentality and the policies that sometimes result from it. There were many references to downsides associated with the American “war on terror.” There also were reminders from European participants of how much the present-day Islamist variety of terrorism is not as different in important respects from earlier varieties, with which the Europeans also have had long experience, than Americans tend to think.
A recurring major theme of the conference was that radicalization is not to be equated with propensity to become a terrorist. The more diverse political traditions of nearly every European country in contrast with the historically more homogeneous American political culture leads Europeans to be less quick to see a security threat emerging out of every radical or alien-sounding thought. It is a difference that Louis Hartz identified half a century ago in his analysis of what he called the liberal tradition in America. It is a difference we see today in some perspectives toward the Arab Spring.
All of this is a reminder of how much America's peculiar geography and history have led to peculiar views—although Americans themselves do not tend to see them this way—of security and of interactions with the rest of the world.
Now at the ten-year mark, America's war in Afghanistan is still subject to competing interpretations of its progress, or lack of it. The data on casualties, violent incidents, number of Afghan army troops and much else can be—and are—parsed in different ways to reach different conclusions. When a war has gone on for this long, however, its sheer longevity has consequences, for the war itself and for how we think about it. Three thoughts in particular are relevant.
First, NATO's forces have worn out their welcome. They were welcome in many respects early in Operation Enduring Freedom and in some respects and by some Afghans even now. But the biggest motivation for insurgency in Afghanistan has for some time been opposition to foreign occupation. The longer the foreign troops have been on Afghan soil, the more grating has been their presence and the more Afghans there are who take up arms against the foreigners, no matter how many of their predecessors have been killed off.
Second, the amount of time that has transpired ought to make us skeptical that there are more corners in this war yet to be turned and more lights to see at the end of tunnels. One sometimes hears that it was only recently that a winning strategy was implemented, or that sufficient resources were applied to the task. Such hopeful expressions wear thinner with each passing year.
Third, we need to resist the psychological tendencies that commonly accompany costly efforts, especially the treating of sunk costs as if they were an investment to be recouped. The longer a war goes on, the more marked are such tendencies. There are ample indications of such tendencies in discussion of the war in Afghanistan. One hears the hope, echoing Lincoln, that those who have died will not have died in vain. But the dead will never come back, no matter what happens henceforth in the war. The only calculation to make is how much can be accomplished with still more dying.
The United States does not do foreign aid well. This includes bilateral development assistance as well as subsidies to multilateral efforts, including contributions to international organizations that are more in the nature of dues than aid. The problem is not new. Back in the 1960s and 1970s the biggest influence on the size and shape of U.S. foreign aid was Representative Otto Passman, a Louisiana Democrat who chaired the House appropriations subcommittee that covered the subject. Passman never met a foreign aid program he liked, and his consistent approach to the subject was to cut, cut and cut some more. Such Congressional treatment, coupled with a broader American public dislike for aid programs and for international organizations, firmly established the United States as the Scrooge of the West. In a calculation by the Congressional Research Service a few years ago, of all the aid donors of Europe and North America plus Japan and Australia (22 nations in all), the United States ranked second to last (above only Italy) in overseas development assistance as a percentage of gross national income (GNI). Even the now teetering-on-default Greece ranked higher. The highest country on the list, Norway, spent 0.87 percent of GNI on development assistance; the United States spent 0.18 percent. Otto Passman is no longer with us, but U.S. aid is now facing more substantial cuts.
There are different legitimate views about both the economic and the political efficacy of overseas development assistance, centered particularly on issues of how much the benefits go to broader populations in the countries concerned as opposed to elites. It would be worth discussing how better to shape incentives through carefully designed conditions attached to aid. The Millennium Challenge Corporation created by the George W. Bush administration had some of the right ideas. But the most conspicuous conditions imposed by the U.S. Congress have nothing to do with political or economic betterment and instead lots to do with the pathologies of U.S. politics. There has been the insertion of anti-abortion dogma, for example, even in family-planning programs that don't do abortions anyway. And then there is the manipulation of aid and contributions to international organizations as another manifestation of Congress's thralldom to Israel.
Israel itself, the largest recipient of all forms of U.S. aid combined, enjoys its $3 billion annually without the slightest whiff of conditions despite behavior that has been highly troublesome to U.S. interests, including the continued colonization of disputed territory that makes the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ever more distant. Meanwhile, there is an aid-slashing uproar on Capitol Hill about the far smaller assistance given to the Palestinian Authority, just because the Palestinian leadership had the temerity to ask for multilateral reaffirmation at the United Nations of what supposedly is a goal shared by the United States and Israel and a central purpose of what passes for a Middle East peace process—namely, Palestinian statehood.
That aid-slashing fulmination is now extending beyond assistance to the Palestinians themselves to include financial support to international organizations that have had anything positive to say about that goal. On Wednesday the executive board of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization approved by a vote of 40-4 full membership for the Palestinians. Afterward an unnamed official of the Obama administration made the strange comment that “We do not believe that the objective we all have—two states, Palestine and Israel—can be achieved through a culture and science organization in Paris.” Who ever said it could? Now there is scurrying to see whether existing legislation that was targeted against the Palestinians, or still more legislation that has been introduced, will mandate a cutoff of U.S. financial support to UNESCO. Yes, sir, ending assistance to the cultural and scientific projects of UNESCO certainly will advance the cause of peace in the Middle East, won't it?
The Israeli ambassador to UNESCO said, “We hope and pray that the UNESCO authorities will realize—and the Palestinians will realize—that there is a very high price to be paid, in American participation in UNESCO.” So Israel is brandishing the threat of the United States not participating in an international organization. Incredible. And humiliating for the United States.
Western governments are in one sense entitled to be “outraged” (the word that U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice used) over the vetoes Tuesday by China and Russia at the United Nations Security Council of a resolution condemning the Syrian regime's abuses against its own population. Although long negotiations already had watered down the resolution more than the United States wanted, Russia and China objected to the hint that was still in the resolution of possible future sanctions if Syrian behavior didn't change. Whether or not (as Rice charged, and as Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin vigorously denied) the Russians and Chinese are most interested in selling arms to Damascus, the vetoes can hardly be described as noble. The last two times that Moscow and Beijing cast Security Council vetoes in tandem—and neither one has exercised the veto very often in recent years—were to kill resolutions criticizing the military junta in Burma in 2007 and the regime of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe in 2008. How's that for attractive company, President Assad? Probably the Russian and Chinese motivations were a mixture of concern for their own relations with the Assad regime (possibly with an arms trade) and avoiding the sort of multilateral condemnation that could in the future be directed against some of their own activities (and that gets into anything China construes as “internal” affairs).
The unfavorable turn in the Security Council proceedings, however, can partly be blamed on the Western governments' own missteps. The resolution did not get the backing of any of the BRICS, which besides China and Russia also include Brazil, India, and South Africa. The BRICS pointed out that the earlier Western-proposed Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force in Libya was supposedly about protecting endangered civilians but turned into a prolonged NATO intervention aimed at overthrowing the Libyan regime. The BRICS say they do not want something similar to happen with Syria. The BRICS have a point. Even if a NATO military intervention in Syria is unlikely, a similar bait-and-switch seems in the making with sanctions. The vetoed resolution hints at sanctions if the Syrian regime does not change its behavior, but Western leaders (including President Obama, after much hullaballoo on this subject in Washington) are talking about changing the regime, not just changing behavior. So the failure this week at the Security Council is partly a price Western governments are paying for two mistakes. One is a disingenuous resolution (and equally disingenuous rhetoric) about their intentions in Libya, and another is confusion about the purpose of sanctions (a topic I have addressed previously, with reference not only to Syria but to other target countries such as Iran).
It is hard enough to get the Russians and Chinese to cooperate on worthwhile multilateral actions. It is too bad when Western governments give them rationales and reasons to cooperate even less.
We who enjoy life in a liberal democracy tend to get so comfortable with our civic values that we sometimes lose sight of the inherent contradictions, or at least tensions, that they entail. Freedom and democracy get discussed in a mashed-together fashion as if they were a single overriding value, which they are not. Freedom—the “liberal” part of liberal democracy—bumps up against the democracy part insofar as it implies, as it should, protecting a sphere of individual liberty from the impositions of government, regardless of whether the government's actions reflect the will of the majority. Even the most stable liberal democracies reflect a compromise between these different values, and there is no clear guide to where the compromise should be struck. The writers of the U.S. Constitution did not get it quite right the first time, needing to add quickly to their original handiwork a bill of rights to nudge the compromise more in the direction of liberties.
We can see these tensions playing out in the current competition among Egyptians over the establishment of a new political order in their country. The competition in Egypt has significant parallels with the issues that concerned the American founding fathers, although in the Egyptian case there is a bigger religious dimension than there was in the earliest days of the United States. I'm not talking about the Islamophobic fears being expressed outside Egypt. A retreat from democracy of the “one man, one vote, one time” variety is no more the preserve of Islamists than it is of, say, secular leftists. And an Islamist coloration of a future Egyptian government should preclude nothing regarding Egypt's foreign relations. Instead I'm referring to the same liberty-versus-democracy tension. Egyptian liberals have proposed a bill of rights to prevent an Islamist majority from imposing restrictions on individual freedoms in the name of upholding religiously based morality. Islamists charge that the proposal is undemocratic. To the extent a majority of Egyptians would favor involving their government in upholding such morality, the Islamist charge would be correct.
Americans and other outsiders do not have a stake in this, except in the sense of an empathetic placing of oneself in the shoes of Egyptians. If I were an Egyptian, I would be firmly in the camp of liberals opposed to any attempt to legislate religiously based morality and in favor of constitutional restrictions to prevent any such attempt (just as I am opposed to attempts here in the United States to let religious dogma influence laws or other actions of the state). But I would have to acknowledge that my defense of this aspect of liberty might run up against the will of the majority of the moment and in that sense would be to some extent undemocratic.
In Egypt the tension involved would become all the more acute if the Egyptian military assumed a role similar to the one the Turkish military used to play, as the guardian of a secular order. What would a good liberal democrat have to say about that?
There is no more of a school solution to these tensions for Egyptians than there was for Americans. Egyptians will have to work out their own formula for juggling conflicting values. Whatever formula they arrive at will involve some compromise of values that we, and many Egyptians, hold dear.
The world is a better place with Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan no longer around. Al-Awlaki was a principal figure in the Yemen-based group that calls itself al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which in recent years has been the most active Sunni extremist band seeking to inflict harm on the United States. Al-Awlaki and Khan both were skillfully using their U.S. backgrounds to put lethal ideas in the heads of impressionable young American Muslims.
But if the killing of these men was solely a matter of acting upon these sorts of observations about dangers they posed, the killings would not be fundamentally different from many arbitrary, lethal actions taken by dictatorships who have perceived threats coming from expatriates. I have said that missile strikes from drones to eliminate individual terrorists are a tool that should not be removed from the counterterrorist tool kit, but that the criteria for designating and identifying targets need to be clearer than they have been. The difference between the United States and the dictatorships is that the United States requires something more, procedurally and legally, than mere observations by the executive authority that someone poses a threat. The foundation for that requirement is the clause in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Consitution that states that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. The requirement is all the more acute with U.S. citizens, as both al-Awlaki and Khan were. What happened in Yemen on Friday was essentially a long-distance execution without judge, jury or publicly presented evidence.
The rationales that some have offered for dispensing with any more procedure than there was do not cut it. We hear that Awlaki renounced his U.S. citizenship. But U.S. law specifies a procedure, which involves appearing in person at a U.S. embassy or consulate and signing an oath of renunciation. I have heard nothing about Awlaki following that procedure, without which anything anyone says about renouncing citizenship has no legal effect. Then there is all the talk about people like Awlaki being at “war” with the United States. The war terminology has been applied to terrorism so loosely, for political and other purposes, for so long that it has lost whatever usefulness it might have had—and it probably didn't have any to begin with—for making procedural and legal distinctions in cases such as this. All sorts of individual miscreants and misfits declare “war” on their societies and countries. The one clear line that can be drawn about war concerns armed hostilities with another state—a line that is the basis for a whole body of international law. But short of that, the “war” talk is metaphorical mush.
President Obama on Friday described al-Awlaki as “the leader of external operations” for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—the first time we have heard that description applied to al-Awlaki, despite plenty of earlier public attention to him. There was no more specific justification for that label. His main impact has been as a propagandist. In whatever role he played as an operational leader, he was more replaceable than as a broadcaster of ideas.
The issues may be even stickier with Samir Khan. It is unclear to what extent he was an intended target more than collateral damage in an operation aimed primarily at al-Awlaki. But insofar as his death could be seen to be highly likely in the strike against al-Awlaki, similar considerations ought to have entered into the decision making as if he had been the sole target. All available indications are that Khan was purely a propagandist. He produced the slick English-language magazine Inspire. His product was speech—hateful speech intended to inspire others to perform deadly acts—but still speech. And here is where we have to take extra care to distinguish what the United States did to him from many other instances in history of regimes killing expatriates merely because they felt threatened by what the expatriates were saying and writing. This includes the Islamic Republic of Iran's former habit of assassinating exiled political figures. It also includes numerous assassinations by the Soviets, perhaps most notably the murder with an axe of Leon Trotsky at the hands of an agent sent by Stalin.
We can distinguish the killings in Yemen from the murder of Trotsky by pointing to the particular motivations and political circumstances in each case, noting especially that the predominance of evil lay with Stalin, one of the biggest mass murderers in history. But assessing evil and the nobility or ignoble nature of motives is inherently subjective and thus subject to caprice and arbitrariness. More fundamental distinctions have to return to law and procedure. Probably more of a procedure lay behind the Yemen operation than behind Stalin's sending of the axe murderer—we hear some things about intra-administration drawing up of target lists for the drone operations—but we don't really know that.
The Yemen operation exemplifies how difficult it can sometimes be to reconcile certain objectives such as eliminating certified bad guys with other objectives or standards that are also very important, even if the damage from compromising them may not be immediately apparent. I do not presume to be able to determine exactly where the lines between the permissible and impermissible ought to be drawn, but I know that we need clearer lines than we have now.