I already "fisked" this article, This article today, Officials Say U.S. Killed an Iraqi in Raid in Syria by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker New York Times 10/27/08, at some length in another, "long-form" post. But I wanted to return to it to summarize some of the most important points.
One is that the administration is all-but-officially admitting they made a military strike into Syrian territory. This was not a "covert action". It was a full-on military strike, a "targeted assassination" operation aimed at a particular individual, if the anonymous sources are to be believed. Do I need to add that there’s no clear reason why these sources should have been granted anonymity since the story couldn’t sound more like an officially-sanctioned "leak"? Or it could be some kind of "trial balloon" to test public and Congressional reaction.
Targeted assassination in general is a highly dubious policy with a highly dubious legal status. This one clearly includes some very real immediate practical risks: reduction of Syrian cooperation with US anti-terrorism operations (which could be a lucky break for Syrian nationals selected for the CIA’s "special rendition"); a relaxing of border controls on the Syrian side; retaliation by Syrian against Iraqi refugees currently residing there; interference with Israeli diplomacy aimed at improving their relations with Syria.
I’m not an attorney or a specialist in international law. But I know enough about it that I would be amazed if it weren’t a straight-up illegal act of aggression. And it’s very notable that the anonymous administration officials are pitching this one not just as an application of the Bush Doctrine of preventive war but an expansion of it.
Motives? The administration officials could be telling the truth. (Hey, it’s theoretically possible!) There clearly seems to be an idea of locking the Obama administration into these kinds of strikes, if not into expanded wars in Pakistan, Syria and/or Iran. The anonymous official included an explicit hint that the same thing might happen to Iran, where there have already been covert actions, according to Seymour Hersh’s reporting. There was even a passage that could be read as a suggestion that the assassination target may have been killed after he was taken into custody.
I’m also worried that one purpose, maybe even the main purpose, is to establish precedents for the next Republican administration to provide some kind of thin validation for further illegal acts. This is why it’s so important that there be official, criminal investigations of this current administration’s bad acts. Because if Obama decides to give them all a pass, the Cheneyized Republican Party will take that as a green light to go back to the use of a lawless "Unitary Executive" the next time they come to power.
This strike into Syria could be a much bigger deal than it might appear on the surface.