Was Killing al-Awlaki a Strategic Error?

The execution of radical cleric (and US citizen) Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen at the beginning of this month may have been an error – not necessarily a legal or moral mistake, but an error of policy.

In the wake of the Awlaqi assassination, Christopher Hitchens asks the most salient question which is that while he shares concerns of those who opposed the action because of “the horrible idea that our government claims the right to add its own citizens to a death list that is compiled by methods and standards unknown” – those opposed are obligated to explain what their alternative policy would be.

In a follow-up column Hitchens provides a justification/precedent/potential policy to address this situation in the future.

In short, while the use of targeted killings is a disturbing policy and the methods by which its use are justified could easily become a slippery slope – there are also legitimate justifications for such a policy in the instance of an American citizen who is involved with dangerous plots against the country and who places himself beyond the reach of the law.

But that is not my problem. Al-Awlaki was first and foremost a media figure (although policy-makers re-defined him as an operational commander.) Applying America’s formidable intelligence and military capabilities to strike him down seems out of proportion and could appear to send the message that the US is an overweening bully quick to squash those who stand up against it. In effect, Awlaki was too rhetorically strong, so we turned to brute force.

I am NOT arguing the morality or targeting al-Awlaki – I am arguing the prudence of the decision. True, his rhetoric had a corrosive effect on our civil society and discourse. But, ten years into our confrontation with Islamic extremism we should be able to counter a two-bit sophist like al-Awlaki, tie him into rhetorical knots, and make him such an easy punching bag that Muslims worldwide start to wonder if he is really a CIA plant!

Instead, in killing him we effectively reinforce his narrative of the Muslim world being subjected by cruel American power. Additionally, the fact that we cannot counter this rhetoric tells Muslim radicals that there is something hollow in our strength – that it is all technological but not based on beliefs.

Let me reiterate, I’m NOT saying this is true, only that it can be perceived this way!

It is true that al-Awlaki was not merely a spokesman. He was linked to active plots. But tactically, targeting him may have been a mistake. He could have become an involuntary honey pot. Contact with him should have been the trigger to investigate Nidal Hassan more carefully.

There are two important counter-arguments. David Ignatius wrote that the strike told radical leaders around that world that targeting the US was not wise but that otherwise we don’t want to get involved in internal matters and “potential increase anti-U.S. sentiment.” It is a fair, but sadly limited argument.

First, the resources the United States is focusing on preventing attacks here is out of proportion to the danger. The real danger is state collapse and increased radicalism across the greater Middle East. Yemen, Egypt, and Pakistan are all poor countries with fast-growing populations, strategic locations, and very negative social trends. The corrosive ideology of radical Islam only further exacerbates these problems. Drones have limited utility in addressing these problems, whereas an ideological counter-campaign is absolutely needed.

The second argument is more difficult. Al-Awlaki’s great success was radicalizing Nidal Hassan who went on to murder 13 fellow soldiers. In targeting him, the message was being sent to American men and women in uniform that these casualties were being avenged – that someone linked to killing American soldiers at a base in the US where they should have been safe – would not be permitted to escape. This is a fair argument. Societies at war demand a great deal of their armed forces and sometimes policies that support them are necessary. Israel’s lopsided deal for the release of Gilad Shalit falls in the same category. Israel is a society of citizen-soldiers and the message that the state will do everything possible to retrieve a captured soldier is necessary to maintain morale and the complex bonds between those who serve, the population at large, and the political leadership.

The drones are amazing technological achievements that serve a valuable role in the battle against Islamic extremism. But, they also call to mind that when one holds a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

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