Somalia assassination undermines case for Obama’s Nobel


Many claim that President Barack Obama ’91 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to express international support for the U.S.’ reengagement with multilateral peace efforts, including efforts to bring an end to wars in Iraq and elsewhere.  This new U.S. foreign policy stands in contrast to the U.S. Special Forces’ recent targeted assassination of a highly wanted Al Qaeda member in Somalia.  On September 14th, U.S. helicopters opened fire on a convoy of trucks in southern Somalia and shot and killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nbahan, who is said to be responsible for the bombing of an Israeli hotel on the coast of Kenya in 2002, and is suspected to have played a role in two 1998 attacks upon American embassies in East Africa.  Targeted assassinations in the territory of a country whose government is both recognized and supported by the U.S. is a counterproductive way to reengage factions that the U.S. had previously alienated.

We could start by asking the question of whether or not this attack was legal under international humanitarian law, but this is neither the most interesting nor the most pressing question.  Instead of debating whether the war on terror is in fact a war, whether the people shot and killed were enemy combatants, and whether the U.S. had just cause to fly over Somalia and shoot these people dead, we should instead ask: was this a good idea?  The legality of the issue is fuzzy and doubtful, but more importantly, this type of military operation is bad policy: we want to change the world’s opinion about the U.S., and in particular ideas about the U.S.’ use of force, and who is or is not its “enemy”.  If President Obama wants to move away from George W. Bush’s aggressive military posture, a targeted assassination that sends the message “if you cross us, we will take you out” is not a change in tune but simply more of the same. 

There are several other messages the U.S. could send that would fit with the underlying assumptions that prompted the award of the Nobel Peace Prize.  If we want to reengage international institutions, reinvigorate the idea that the U.S. is a team player, and promote the notion of an international rule of law, we could begin with a message that if you break the law, we will do everything in our power to deal with this disagreement through the law.  It is not clear whether the Obama administration has considered this approach.  We have not heard any talk of, for example, capturing Saleh Ali Saleh Nbahan and bringing him to his native Kenya, or to the International Criminal Court, for trial (and now, it’s too late).  It is discomfiting to learn of the assassination after the fact without being assured that alternative international legal strategies designed to strengthen global systems and global security were considered.  

Perhaps the most important message that the Obama administration could have chosen to send instead would have been that, if there are some fundamental differences at issue between the U.S. and people set on attacking the U.S., the country will do everything in our power to understand and better meet the interests of the other side.  Commentators supporting Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize have emphasized the President’s unprecedented engagement with the Muslim world.  But swooping in and shooting suspected terrorists dead undermnines such efforts, which would better ensure the U.S.’ long term national security. In the process, the U.S. fails to learn where terrorists are coming from, why they are fighting, for what they are fighting for, how it is they have come to believe so strongly that the U.S. is an enemy to be attacked, and why it is that terrorist groups are not running out of converts. 

It is both too easy and too flimsy of an explanation to think that all terrorists are madmen that can’t be reasoned with. The story can be written from another angle, and that story is one of an oppressive U.S. that wages war in Afghanistan and Iraq; abducts, tortures, and kills innocent people because they are of Arab descent or are Muslim; and gets away with flouting international human rights standards in torture prisons like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.  This story continues to gain strength, as evinced with such recent developments as Wednesday’s Italian conviction of 23 Americans involved in CIA renditions – a conviction that sends a strong message that the world has not forgotten nor is it willing to let the U.S. off the hook for its violence and illegal war on terror strategies.  If we want to change the perception that the U.S. gets to run around the world shooting whoever it wants because it has the biggest guns, we should at least stop sending special forces to assassinate suspects as they drive through remote deserts. 

What is even more eerie is that this represents a significant shift in U.S. foreign policy towards Somalia. Not since the 1993 “Battle of Black Hawk Down” has the U.S. launched a helicopter attack there.  The attack came at a time when Somalia is considered increasingly lawless, and the local Islamist insurgent group, Al-Shabab, which has links to Al Qaeda, continues its attempts to overthrow Somalia’s internationally recognized government.  Since Black Hawk Down, the U.S. has limited its strikes on the country to the use of long-range missiles.  In this attack, we see the capability and willingness of the Obama administration to gather precise intelligence as to the location of wanted terrorist suspects, and to then strike quickly to assassinate them.  As this is the first military action of this sort since Obama took office, it could be an indication that we should expect more targeted attacks in the future, especially as U.S. troops are withdrawn from the ground, in Iraq and elsewhere.  Unlike a prolonged ground war, this attack communicates that the Obama administration intends to attack Al Qaeda officials wherever they are found. 

Knee jerk reactions to this news are often that we can claim victory and a smart strategy.  “We got the guy! He deserved it!” people cry.  It is smarter to fight them where we find them than to keep our troops under fire in any one country, others think.  But this is neither a strategic nor a victorious approach.  It is not peaceful and its not smart, because it doesn’t address the underlying issues that have led us into a fight against terrorists and extremism in the first place.  Here’s hoping the Nobel Peace Prize is enough of a motivational tool to effectuate this much-needed reorientation.  

Jessica Corsi is a 3L and is Opinion Editor of the Harvard Law Record.

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