Early last week, President Joe Biden announced that the United States had killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul, Afghanistan. The news initially sparked widespread media attention, but in the end it came and went with relatively little fanfare, especially for the death of a long-time American enemy with a $25 million bounty on his head.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of the announcement (and the discourse that followed) was what was left unsaid. Despite the fact that Biden ran for president in part on restoring the “rules-based international order,” he made no effort to justify the attack under international law, and most news coverage has failed to even touch on the issue.
On the surface, the strike left relatively little to complain about. It was remarkably precise, killing only Zawahiri, and, for many analysts, it proved that America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan would not hinder its ability to conduct precise counter terror missions.
But experts say the killing lacks legal justification and shows that Biden has bought into one of the most pernicious ideas driving the past two decades of U.S. policy: Washington can and should use force wherever it sees fit, even if that means twisting international law beyond recognition. This is in many ways the underlying logic for America’s globe-spanning military presence, according to experts who spoke with Responsible Statecraft. Worse, it erodes international law, allowing other states to justify all sorts of questionable actions outside their borders.