Since the recent assassination of Qassim Suleimani, the leader of the Iranian Quds force, there has been much talk of whether such targeted killings might become a regular feature of U.S. foreign policy under President Donald Trump. Trump, or more accurately his advisors and supporters, have cast around for years to define a ‘Trump Doctrine.’ This exercise has often stumbled because of the president’s mercurial and erratic foreign policy choices.
It is not clear if targeted assassinations are strategic enough to constitute a ‘doctrine.’ They appear more like a tactic or a tool to pursue a larger goal. Perhaps if coupled to a draw-down of US forces - Trump has occasionally nodded at retrenchment as his grand strategy – targeted strikes could be defended as filling in gaps left by departing US soldiers.
I take for granted here that this tool is something the Trump administration would like to try again, and my concern is how it might be applied to another rogue state which the Trump administration has repeatedly tangled with – North Korea. Briefly put, any ‘Suleimani Doctrine’ in North Korea would run a huge risk of escalation.
Drone strikes are an obvious temptation. They have clear political upsides. As unmanned machines, their loss does not provoke contention back home over casualties. There is a long-running debate about whether the US is too casualty shy to be a superpower – apparently Osama bin Laden believed this. Drones sidestep that debate entirely, quite conveniently for politicians who want to avoid such uncomfortable topics.
Drones also blur conventional definitions of armed conflict. Manned vehicles with a flagged combatant moving over another states’ sovereign space is our intuitive definition of invasion and conflict. Drones do not quite conform to that. The norms around them are unclear, as witnessed in the debates over how to respond when they are shot down. This too is politically convenient.