Al-Awlaki and International Order
Most of the debate over the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki has focused on the legality of the action and its effect on al-Qaeda. But what does it mean for international order? Will it lead to states deciding to use forces against overseas dissidents more freely?
Understanding the killing of al-Awlaki within the long frame of history suggests that it is banal rather than exceptional.
I wrote a guest post for Thinking Strategically last year about the idea of the “super-empowered individual” and the likely response of the state. I quote my op-ed at length because it describes why drones and special forces have become the preferred method of waging war against modern irregulars:
Edward Luttwak describes the state as a powerful and robust machine that can utilize its organs to effectively crush internal threats. … Most governments have the power to focus police, military, and intelligence services to root out and destroy most threats to their own control. …Their abilities to do so are greatest in urban centers—hence the historic failure of urban guerilla warfare to succeed beyond the tactical levels.
If technology enables an individual to take on a state, then the state will in turn concentrate as much force as possible on the individual. The more difficult it is to target the individual, the more discrete, calculating, and personal the application of violence will be. There is consistent record of states reacting to individuals utilizing aspects of modernity to increase their own criminal or military power by generating operational technologies to utilize state power to crush them. …
Today, drones, counter-network warfare concepts, and modern updates of old techniques of bush tracking and manhunting are the modern state’s means of dealing with those who challenge it. While these technologies would not be unrecognizable to 19th century military and lawmen tracking border raiders, Indian guerrillas, or fugitives, they have been modernized for the digital age. If the United States is truly moving away from the use of general-purpose forces for counterinsurgency in the near-term, these tools of coercion will surely become more important to American strategy.
States form because they are able to crush all competing power-centers, the process of “nation-building” is a bloody melange of violent identity formation and the subjugation of sub-national elites and groups that do not fit within the dominant identity the state-builders are seeking to create. All states are the product of such a process, although the length of the process and its intensity often varies by case.
Modern states, as Luttwak notes, are machines optimized for focusing power on those who seek to challenge their underlying order through violence. This process, too, is often ugly and is fraught with temporary ethical and legal compromise.
Democracies and authoritarian states are distinguished primarily between what kinds of sub-state movements they consider to be threats. Modern democracies often focus force on violent threats (insurgents, terrorists), but also use coercive force to deflect nonviolent challenges to authority. When Southern governors decided to physically prevent the integration of schools, federal troops were used to remind them who was really in charge. Authoritarian states often conflate nonviolent and violent threats to the political power of regime elites as generalized threats to national security.
Most of the time within democracies, the use of force is sublimated within the framework of the rule of law. But it is often stretched or abandoned altogether in times of crisis, especially when adversaries use unusual means. The point is that all modern states—regardless of regime type—reserve the right to declare a state of exception. What constitutes necessary ground for such a state of exception is contextual. But regardless of justification, every political regime considers the right to use force to put down internal revolt or defend against external threat a basic condition of sovereignty. The principle of action in favor of what is to be considered the “public good” drastically varies from Washington to Beijing but as a norm it predates the idea of the social contract.
This is why American action in the Global War on Terror is unlikely to shift global norms. Other states can perhaps use the killing of overseas al-Qaeda operatives as a rhetorical fig leaf for their actions, but the substantial body count racked up by the FSB (and their Soviet and Czarist-era ancestors) and the Mossad suggests that states will always act to strike those who they consider to be threats as long as they have the power and reach to do so. Capability rather than justification matters, since modern states consider the power to strike threats to national security a basic condition of their sovereignty.
Now we proceed to al-Qaeda. As a distributed network entity, al-Qaeda tried to create an asymmetric advantage by dispersing itself in weak, failing, or otherwise noncompliant states and mobilizing its legions in virtual space through figures such as al-Awlaki. This innovation defeated the traditional state tool of law enforcement. Military intervention carried plenty of strategic risks, and as Steve Coll recounted in Ghost Wars every small-scale option for military action ended up ballooning in size during the planning phase.
So what happened next? To use two phrases very popular in the modern strategic literature, we adapted and innovated. America responded through the tactical construct of the drone/special forces strike team and an operational construct rooted in rapid targeting and exploitation. Hundreds of burning cars, trucks, and ruined campsites later, al-Qaeda is now being given a dramatic and bitter lesson in the power and resiliency of the modern state.
Al-Awlaki is not a precedent, because the precedent was set when the first pirate’s neck was broken by a thick rope in front of a cheering crowd of onlookers. States tend to be harsh on criminals, terrorists, and insurgents who do not wear uniforms—and receive wide public support for doing so. It’s not even unique within the context of American history, as any cursory reading of the 19th century will reveal. Even during Prohibition, middle-ranking gangsters and stick-up gangs were killed under what what can also be seen as legally questionable circumstances.
This doesn’t mean that any of the legal and moral questions raised about his death aren’t legitimate, and it is a strength of American democracy that they are being openly debated. In this sense, the debate is less about al-Awlaki than American law and democracy and the executive’s ability to use force. But al-Awlaki’s death is not going to give anyone else license to target overseas, because if they have done so and will continue to do so if they feel that overseas elements pose a threat to their national security. Capability, not norms, are their only limitation.