Teaching a Neocon Exactly How WWII Is Different From the War on Terror

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Charles Krauthammer defends drone strikes with an analogy that fails even under his own analysis.

dday battlefield full.png
American noncombatants were unlikely to be found on the beaches at Normandy, especially compared to a War on Terror "battlefield," which encompasses the whole earth.

Over at The Corner, National Review's group blog, there is an unexplained feature that I like to call "Krauthammer: '_________.'" It consists of a junior staffer taking YouTube clips of pundit Charles Krauthammer on Fox News, embedding them in a post, and then summarizing the clip in text. Taken as individual blog posts, none is particularly weird, but I am amused that they appear day after day, as if the fact that Charles Krauthammer says something is itself a newsworthy occurrence.

Yesterday's installment of "Krauthammer: '______.'" concerned drones:
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Here's the video clip, and the summary:
On Special Report tonight, Charles Krauthammer explained why he was unfazed by the use of drones to kill Americans without a trial. He pointed out that, "thousands of Americans died at Antietam without due process" and "when we stormed the beaches at Normandy on D-Day, and Americans approached a German bunker, I don't think anyone asked, 'Is there a German-American here? I want to read you the Miranda rights.'" Unfortunately, the administration's guidelines "were probably written by someone in the lower quintile of his law school class" because "they want to pretend that you can only hit an American al-Qaeda operative who is an imminent threat and then define him as a threat out of existence by saying al-Qaeda is continually hatching plots so he's always an imminent threat."
Left out of that summary is his passing acknowledgment that the War on Terror is different than past wars. What Krauthammer doesn't realize is that identifying how the wars are different goes a long way toward demonstrating that drone critics are being reasonable, not hysterical.

The Civil War and World War II were discrete, declared wars against specific enemies who fought the U.S. on geographically predictable battlefields. At Antietam or Normandy, it would have been very difficult for Presidents Lincoln or Roosevelt to abuse their power by killing an innocent American they falsely labeled an enemy combatant -- they didn't send a kill list of individuals into battle, and the odds that a given innocent they wanted to kill would just happen to be there were rather low. Finally, quite apart from every other argument, there was literally no way to afford anyone due process on the battlefield at Antietam or on the beaches of Normandy.

In contrast, the War on Terrorism is a never-ending conflict against an amorphous, un-uniformed enemy fought in secret, often far from any traditional battlefield, with opaque rules of engagement carried out by the CIA rather than the armed forces. If drone strikes are constrained only by a secret executive-branch process wherein any American is treated as an enemy combatant on the mere say-so of a "high-level official," and requires no evidence that the target is planning an attack any time in the near future, it would be very easy for the power to be abused. Lots of innocent people just happen to be walking around on the battlefield in the War on Terror, as it's defined by the CIA, because the battlefield encompasses the whole earth. And it would be very easy to afford guys like Anwar al-Awlaki more due process than Obama has extended -- in that case, the militant cleric likely could've been tried in absentia, convicted, and killed.

Hawkish conservatives never cease to amaze me with their inability to draw distinctions, no matter how glaring, between World War II and whatever conflict they're presently championing*. But I must admit that I was slightly surprised to see Krauthammer in particular advance his hysteria argument. Here's how he reacted, in a previous installment of "Krauthammer: '_______.'" when the topic was the use of unarmed surveillance drones within the United States:
I'm going to go hard left on you. I'm going to go ACLU. I don't want regulations. I don't want restrictions. I want a ban on this. Drones are instruments of war. The Founders had a great aversion to any instruments of war, the use of the military, inside of the United States. They didn't like standing armies. It has all kinds of statutes against using the army in the country. A drone is a high-tech version of an old Army-issue musket. It ought to be used in Somalia to hunt the bad guys. But not in America. I don't want to see it hovering over anybody's home. You can say we've got satellites, we've got Google Street, and London has a camera on every street corner.

But that's not an excuse to cave in on everything else and accept a society where you're always being watched by the government. This is not what we want. I would say you ban it under all circumstances. And I would predict -- I'm not encouraging, but I would predict the first guy who uses a Second Amendment weapon to bring a drone down that's hovering over his house is gonna be a folk hero in this country.
So to summarize Krauthammer, extrajudicial drone strikes are fine -- the "hysteria" over them is incomprehensible -- even when they hit and kill American citizens far from any traditional battlefield, with no due process, presentation of evidence presented, or even transparent criteria for who gets targeted. But permitting unarmed surveillance drones in American airspace is unacceptable under all circumstances, contrary to the vision of the Founders, and constitutes caving to tyranny. Come on, Krauthammer, what's the big deal about surveillance drones in domestic airspace? Don't you know that thousands of Americans died at Antietam without due process?

Oh, that argument makes no sense?

Exactly. 
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*Or in Krauthammer's case, to acknowledge distinctions even while marshaling an analogy that fails because of them.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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