One man’s targeted strike is another man’s state-sanctioned murder

Rosa Brooks writes: In 1999, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, both colonels in China’s People’s Liberation Army, published a slender book called Unrestricted Warfare. The two officers predicted that technological innovations and globalization would change warfare almost beyond recognition. In a world of cyberattacks, asymmetric warfare, and transnational terrorism, they wrote, “the three indispensable ‘hardware’ elements of any war … soldiers, weapons and a battlefield … have changed so that it is impossible to get a firm grip on them.… [I]s the war god’s face still distinct?”

Qiao and Wang published Unrestricted Warfare two years before the 9/11 attacks, and their description of likely changes in warfare was strikingly prescient. In previous columns, I’ve described some ways these changes challenge our most basic ideas of what a military is, does, and should do, and suggested that failing to fully confront those changes and challenges is a surefire way to end up with a national security strategy that’s both incoherent and inefficient.

It’s also a surefire way to damage the rule of law.

A lot of ink has been spilled defining the rule of law (some of it by me), but at root it’s pretty simple. The rule of law requires that governments follow transparent, universally applicable, and clearly defined laws and procedures. The goal is to prevent the arbitrary exercise of power. When you’ve got the rule of law, the government can’t fine you, lock you up, or kill you on a whim — it can only do that in accordance with pre-established rules that reflect basic notions of humanity and fairness.

When you don’t have the rule of law, life can get unpleasant. Qiao and Wang, for instance, come from a country where the rule of law is only partially realized, and arbitrary detention and executions without due process remain common. Or consider the grievances enumerated in the American Declaration of Independence: Britain’s King George III, the colonists complained, deprived them of “the benefits of Trial by Jury,” refused “his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers,” transported prisoners “beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences,” and “affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.”

Bad stuff! Americans fought a long and bloody war over it.

Today, however, the very same changes that challenge our long-held assumptions about the military also challenge the rule of law America once fought so hard to establish both domestically and globally. (The United States was instrumental in the creation of the United Nations and the various international human rights treaties and institutions.) For when the idea of “war” loses definition — when the war god’s face grows indistinct — we lose any principled basis for deciding when the law of war applies, and when it doesn’t. [Continue reading…]

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