Back in the 18th century, there was an unwritten understanding in the conduct of warfare that one didn’t kill the generals in battle. This wasn’t about protecting the elite while the “grunts” of the day slaughtered each other. It was a matter of common sense: If you killed the general, there was no one in a position to order a withdrawal or to surrender, once it became clear that one side was winning. With no general in command, things could become chaotic, leading to more bloodshed than necessary.
In the US, ever since the brief presidency of Gerald Ford, and in the wake of the Senate’s Church Committee hearings into the nefarious activities of the CIA and other secret agencies during the Nixon administration and earlier — particularly efforts to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro and some other national leaders — it has been US policy not to kill heads of state. In fact, a Ford executive order, number 12333, signed by President Ford in the mid 1970s, specifically bans the killing of government leaders, however brutish.
If one wants to see an example of why this is a logical policy, just look at what happened during the Obama administration, when Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafy was murdered by his US-backed captors (with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s enthusiastic support), leaving Libya in a state of total chaos from which it has never really recovered.
Yet now there is talk by President Trump and his increasingly neoconservative- dominated National Security and Pentagon team of advisors of “taking out” North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, even as an aircraft carrier attack group steams towards the Korean peninsula.
Getting rid of Ford Executive Order 12333 would be no difficult hurdle for President Trump, who has been “governing” the country through ill-though-out executive order issuance — most of them written by his political strategist Stephen Bannon, since he assumed office Jan. 20. Bannon, now being sidelined by more traditional cold war neo- cons, may not be writing those orders for his boss now, but someone else could easily do it, erasing E.O 12333 with the stroke of a pen.
What would such a change mean?
In the case of North Korea, it could mean a quick “decapitation” strike by US aircraft from the USS Carl Vinson — one which would presumably destroy North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapon-making capability, and killing Kim and the country’s top military leadership around him.
But what would the result of such a strike be?
For one thing, almost certainly it would mean the contamination of part or even much of the country in North Korea with nuclear fallout and radiation. For another it — given the long history of US “precision” targeting going terribly wrong — it would mean much death and destruction for the long-suffering North Korean people. It would also mean chaos in a country that for nearly three-quarters of a century has been ruled by one absolute tyrant or another, in which there is simply no organized system of governance at lower levels to handle anything, from delivery of health services to distribution of food. If you think the chaos that followed the US invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the Baathist leadership of Iraq was bad, or that the chaos of the US overthrow of Gaddafy in Libya was bad, you ain’t seen nothing yet if North Korea’s leader gets offed in a US strike.
In theory, China, South Korea or Japan could step in with troops, money and civilian personnel to help reestablish some kind of order and peace, while preventing the rise of yet another tyrannical government, but none of that is likely. The Chinese would probably not want to take it on, the Japanese are viewed negatively as a former colonial power, and South Korea may not want the financial burden of rescuing the North, which would be staggering. Meanwhile, while the US could relatively easily, and at minimal cost, “take out” North Korea’s missiles, nukes and leadership, especially in the case of the Trump administration, there is absolutely no interest in taking on the costs of occupying and subsidizing the rebuilding North Korea following such an ill-conceived attack.
Will that deter the US from ending the ban on killing national leaders and launching an attack on North Korea aimed at “taking out” Kim?
It’s hard to say, but with Trump abandoning his domestic campaign promises left and right, turning domestic policy into a giant give-away to the rich and the Wall Street banksters, and in the process alienating most of his political base, he seems hell-bent on
diverting attention abroad by taking dramatic military actions that make him appear decisive and powerful.
In Syria, that is amping up the risk of a direct confrontation with Russia’s air force and a potential World War III. In North Korea, it risks creation of yet another Libya, this time in Asia, complete with a flood of desperate refugees and another flood of unaccountable and uncontrollable weapons, possibly including nukes, or nuclear materials.
One thing is clear: If Donald Trump actually gave a damn about “beautiful little babies,” he would not be contemplating an aerial assault on North Korea, the bombing of its nuclear facilities and the decapitation of its top leadership.
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