Slugger George Will Strikes Out in His Column on Drones

The conservative columnist justifies Obama's secretive killing spree in the abstract, but he grievously ignores how the war is actually carried out.


If newspaper columnists had their appearances tallied on stat sheets like baseball players, George Will, the Pulitzer Prize-winning septuagenarian, might well hold the journalistic equivalent of Pete Rose's "most hits" record, in part because he's been impressively productive over a longer stretch than Cal Ripken Jr. Employed by the Washington Post and syndicated all over America, Will proved himself more sober-minded than many of his fellow conservatives during the Bush years, when he remained a fiscal conservative and saw the folly of the Iraq War earlier than most. In 2009, he turned against the Afghan war too, writing that "America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, air strikes and small, potent special forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters." 

It is in this fraught context -- chastened by his early support of imprudent wars, and eager to avoid boots on the ground whenever possible -- that Will has written an uncharacteristically obtuse column on President Obama's drone war.

Put simply, he declares it justified, a conclusion he reaches without bothering to evaluate its particulars. Instead, he embarks on a theoretical exploration of whether it is defensible in theory to kill Al Qaeda terrorists with unmanned aerial vehicles, ignoring real-world events and unintended consequences as obliviously as a 1970s liberal extolling the wisdom of rent control.

A graduate of Trinity College, the University of Oxford, and Princeton University, Will gets into trouble mostly when he over-intellectualizes a subject. Speaking in favor of invading Iraq in 2002, he told Charlie Rose, "we believe, with reason, that democracy's infectious," theorizing that "we saw it happen in Eastern Europe," and that the Middle East is likely to have "a ripple effect, a happy domino effect, if you will, of democracy knocking over these medieval tyrannies." A self-described pessimist, Will ought to have understood that even the most carefully laid dominoes can fail to fall as intended, and that foreign nations are not uniformly fabricated playthings.

On another occasion, Will heaped praise on a critic of denim pants, writing, "he should be given the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He has earned it by identifying an obnoxious misuse of freedom." Will went on to write that "denim is the clerical vestment for the priesthood of all believers in democracy's catechism of leveling -- thou shalt not dress better than society's most slovenly. To do so would be to commit the sin of lookism -- of believing that appearance matters. That heresy leads to denying the universal appropriateness of everything, and then to the elitist assertion that there is good and bad taste." The notion that denim-wearing Americans are signalling that appearance doesn't matter, averse to dressing better than their peers, and committed to the proposition that there's no such thing as good and bad taste ignores not only the lived experience of most Americans -- ask any teenager if they'd prefer to pick out their own jeans or if they'd happily wear whatever their George Will-reading grandfather might select -- but is belied by a lucrative, highly segmented market in denim, designer and otherwise, which is as fraught with status concern and signalling as the market for automobiles.

I dwell on those bygone, uncharacteristic strikeouts because Will's drone column is just as disconnected from lived reality. It begins by asking what to make of this new technology, the armed drone, and takes John Yoo of all people as the appropriate man to help us think through the subject:
In "Assassination or Targeted Killings After 9/11" (New York Law School Law Review, 2011-12), Yoo correctly notes that "precise attacks against individuals" have many precedents and "further the goals of the laws of war by eliminating the enemy and reducing harm to innocent civilians." And he clarifies the compelling logic of using drones for targeted killings -- attacking a specific person rather than a military unit or asset -- in today's "undefined war with a limitless battlefield."
It is irresponsible to concede that America is engaged in an "undefined war with a limitless battlefield," in part because both claims are false. Constitutionally, the so-called War on Terrorism is defined by the Authorization for Use of Military Force, which Obama is arguably exceeding, and I very much doubt Will really believes the battlefield to be limitless. Does he think Obama is empowered on no authority but his own to order a drone strike in Beijing? London? How about San Francisco? To grant Yoo's framing is often to concede dictatorial power to the president without quite realizing the sweep of the precedent you've unwittingly set.

Nor is the present drone war restricted to targeting a "specific person." In Pakistan, the CIA is empowered to carry out "signature strikes," in which the target's identity is unknown even to the CIA.

Says Will:

Today's war is additionally complicated by the fact that, as Yoo says, America's enemy "resembles a network, not a nation." Its commanders and fighters do not wear uniforms; they hide among civilian populations and are not parts of a transparent command-and-control apparatus. Drones enable the U.S. military -- which, regarding drones, includes the CIA; an important distinction has been blurred -- to wield a technology especially potent against al-Qaeda's organization and tactics. All its leaders are, effectively, military, not civilian. Killing them serves the military purposes of demoralizing the enemy, preventing planning, sowing confusion and draining the reservoir of experience.

Most U.S. wars have been fought with military mass sustained by economic might. But as Yoo says, today's war is against a diffuse enemy that has no territory to invade and no massed forces to crush. So the war cannot be won by producing more tanks, army divisions or naval forces. The United States can win only by destroying al-Qaeda's "ability to function -- by selectively killing or capturing its key members."
But the controversy surrounding drones doesn't turn on whether it is advisable to kill known members of Al Qaeda any more than the Iraq War turned on whether Saddam Hussein's death was desirable. Rather, the typical drone-war critic is raising the sorts of questions that Will would be echoing were he staying true to the pessimistic conservatism that characterizes his best work.

Questions like:

Is it likely to end in abuse if America empowers all presidents from here on out to kill people -- including American citizens -- in secret, without any due process? Would the Founders be wary of letting the president secretly wage war in any country of his choosing without getting congressional permission? Is America likely to make enemies of foreigners who'd never otherwise act against us if our drones inadvertently kill hundreds of innocents in their societies? How can Americans be killed extrajudicially given the plain language of the Fifth Amendment? Are bureaucrats likely to carry out the drone war responsibly when they're permitted to keep secret the legal theories under which they operate, statistics on the success of their targeting, how they determine whether people they killed were guilty or innocent, and the number of innocents that are killed? These are just some of the urgent questions Will totally ignores.

In doing so, one of America's most influential conservative columnists has joined the depressingly large subset of center-left journalists who ignore the most alarming parts of Obama's drone war, justifying it when they pay it any mind at all with the telling argument that it's preferable to carpet bombing or massive ground invasions or thermonuclear war.

What isn't?!

Even someone convinced that we need some sort of drone war ought to be alarmed at the specific one being waged.

The New York Times recently revealed that even Obama Administration officials are alarmed at the prospect of the drone war (as they currently implement it) being waged by a Republican president. It is perhaps unsurprising that Obama would regard himself so highly as to trust to himself power that he would never want a GOP successor to enjoy. It is more surprising that a man like Will would refrain from objecting to Obama having such sweeping, unchecked power. He has literally expressed more alarm at the implications of wearing blue jeans.

Revisit this subject, my esteemed elder, addressing the policy as it's being carried out in practice, rather than as it's abstracted by John Yoo. Applying your long held principles to reality is all I ask.