MSNBC Host: Trusting Obama More Than Bush Isn't Hypocritical

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Despite numerous objections to his drone program, Krystal Ball says she is comfortable ceding the power to kill to the president.

MSNBC host Krystal Ball just became the unofficial spokesperson for progressives who support President Obama's targeted killing program, even though they would've flipped out had President Bush implemented the same drone policies. There isn't any hypocrisy in that position, Ball argued, advancing the debate by making widely held but unspoken arguments explicit.

Here's video, followed by a transcript -- and interspersed with that, my emphatic take on why she is wrong. The mindset expressed is arguably one of the most consequential in American politics today. Obama's drone program is unlikely to be reformed so long as progressives like Ball (whose writing has previously appeared in this space) maintain this position:



Now her unabridged argument in text, along with my comments:

In general, I think drones can be a useful, effective tool of war. If there's a bad guy, a senior leader of Al Qaeda, say, who we can take out with a drone strike, I say we do it. I am, however, bothered by the secrecy, lack of transparency, and lack of oversight of the drone program. The process by which we choose targets should be detailed and codified. The people who are killed, civilian and militant, should be public information, or at least known by Congress, so that we can study the overall impact of our drone policy on radicalizing civilian populations. And there should be some kind of judicial branch oversight such as special courts or lawsuits after the fact, perhaps. So to sum it up, I'm okay with drones in general, but I'm not satisfied with the current way that the program is being handled.

So far, so good. I agree that drones could be a useful, effective weapon in theory, and that Obama's actual drone campaign is flawed in all of the ways that Ball mentions (and more).

There is something about this drone debate, though, that is driving me nuts. And that is the charge, mostly by Republicans, that if you feel any different about the drone program under President Obama than you would have under President George W. Bush, you are an utter, hopeless hypocrite. Let me ask you a question. How would you feel about a Madeleine Albright panel on women and body image? Okay, now how do you feel about a Larry Flynt panel on women and body image? How do you feel about your kid in Dr. Ruth's sex-ed class versus Todd Akin's? Do you feel different about Warren Buffett setting standards for financial ethics versus Bernie Madoff? Of course you do, because you're normal. But according to the Republican logic used during this drone debate, if you feel any different about the Madeleine Albright and Larry Flynt panels, you are a hypocrite.

This argument proves very little. Yes, I would rather that Warren Buffett set standards for financial ethics than Bernie Madoff, if that were the only choice. But I would strenuously object if the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that Buffett would unilaterally impose rules that he conceived in secret and never announced even after they were in effect. That I'd prefer his secret, arbitrary rules to Madoff's rules doesn't mean that I'd act as an apologist for Buffett. I'd object with maximum vehemence to anyone who threatened the rule of law.  

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Progressive hypocrisy isn't a function of the understandable fact that they trust Obama more than Bush, or feel better about him. I would feel better about giving my mother the power to order extrajudicial executions than I would giving that power to George W. Bush or Barack Obama. I'd still be a hypocrite if I went along with my mom wielding that power, because I think it is always wrong, just as Ball thinks it is always wrong to have a drone program characterized by "secrecy, lack of transparency, and lack of oversight." Were Bush in power, she'd be making objections that referred to those impersonal factors, not merely saying that she didn't have personal faith in Bush's leadership. And she'd call for the drone program to stop pending reforms that addressed her objections, not passively articulating changes she'd like to see happen.    

Look, I voted for President Obama because I trust his values and his judgment. And I believe that he's a fundamentally responsible actor. Without gratuitously slamming ex-President Bush, I think he displayed extraordinary lapses in judgement in executing his primary responsibility as commander in chief, and put troops in harms way imprudently. President Obama would have exercised better judgment and he has exercised better judgment. The way it stands now, the drone program is exclusively in the domain of the executive. Their protocol, their judgment. So yeah, I feel a whole lot better about the program when the decider, so to speak, is President Obama.

I generally trust Obama more than Bush too.

But what a perfect illustration of the unreality now gripping progressivism. Set aside the fact that, in Pakistan, it's actually often CIA agents, not the president, who decide when to fire drones; that the white paper released by the White House vests the power to kill in an "informed, high-level official," which probably means John Brennan, who was a high-ranking CIA official during the Bush years; and that Obama's actions are setting a precedent for all future presidents. Significant as those facts are, even more striking is that Ball feels abstractly better about Obama's judgment and responsibility as an actor, even in the realm of drones, despite the fact that she herself thinks he is exercising poor judgment in that very realm.

The things she dislikes about drones have gotten worse under Obama.

She herself acknowledges that she's "not satisfied with the current way that the program is being handled." Her objections aren't about trivial either. She has a problem with Team Obama's secrecy, the way that targets are chosen, and the government's behavior when innocents are killed, all of which reflect deliberate decisions that Obama has made. Yet she still can't bring herself to question his judgment and responsibility in that realm -- she affirmatively trusts it, even on drones.     

That's not to say, again, that the process shouldn't be codified, that there shouldn't be oversight. But really, is our standard so low that we would only grant powers to the executive that we would trust in the hands of a man who misled the nation to get us into a war we never should've been involved in?

Yes! That ought to be our standard. 

Misleading a nation into war isn't an anomaly in world affairs that began and ended with the last president. Future presidents will be just as bad as George W. Bush. There have been and likely will be worse presidents. If future abuses can be avoided, and the cost is presidents who aren't meanwhile empowered to do everything progressives would like, we ought to make that tradeoff.  

What would George W. Bush do?

That's our standard? We would never allow a power to the presidency that we wouldn't feel comfortable giving to George W. Bush?

Basically, yes: progressives ought never give a president the unchecked power to secretly do something unless they'd feel comfortable giving George W. Bush that very same unchecked power.  

I think we could raise the bar a bit from that, and just for a little perspective, let's keep in mind that the president does have the unilateral power to drop nuclear bombs and destroy the entire planet. Do you feel the same way about George W. Bush having the nuclear codes as you do about President Obama? Call me a hypocrite, but I sure don't.

If you want to know what progressive tendency I find most bothersome, it's embedded right there in that last excerpt. Ball apparently believes that right now, a president would be acting within the law if he were to unilaterally "destroy the entire planet." Her reaction to that belief isn't, "Wow, we've concentrated a dangerous amount of power in the unilateral decision of one man -- let's implement some reforms so that one man isn't lawfully empowered to destroy the planet, and take a close look at what else we've empowered the president to do without any checks."

No, instead she uses her belief that the president could legitimately order the planet destroyed to defend fellow progressives for trusting Obama with the comparatively inconsequential power to unilaterally kill American citizens in secret, even though she doesn't even actually agree with the policy.

What a profoundly strong aversion to limiting government.

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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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