The Buzz

Drones and Double Standards

Last Friday, MSNBC’s “The Cycle” co-host Krystal Ball attempted to take on the argument that, as she puts it, “if you feel any differently about the drone program under President Obama than you would have under George W. Bush, you are an utter, hopeless hypocrite.” In response, she makes the following case:

I voted for President Obama because I trust his values and his judgment and believe that he is a fundamentally responsible person. Without gratuitously slamming an ex-president, I think Bush displayed extraordinary lapses in judgment in executing his primary responsibility as commander-in-chief and put troops in harm’s way imprudently. President Obama would have exercised better judgment and he has exercised better judgment. . . . So yeah, I feel a whole lot better about the program when the decider is President Obama.

Ball’s position may not be hypocritical, but it is completely wrong. It is at least logically consistent in that if you believe that one president has exercised better judgment than another, there is some reason for you to be more comfortable with the first one having certain powers. But what Ball apparently fails to realize is that when you agree to trust one president with a kind of power, you are necessarily entrusting all of his or her successors with that power. At some point in the future, the United States will probably elect a president whose judgment Ball thinks is faulty. If, say, Sarah Palin or Herman Cain were elected in 2016, there is no mechanism by which Ball or anyone who agrees with her could conceivably “withdraw” the powers Obama has exercised in overseeing the drone program.

This only becomes clearer when you look at the analogy Ball uses to make her point. In her words:

How would you feel about a Madeleine Albright panel on women and body image? OK. Now, how do you feel about the Larry Flynt panel on women and body image? Uh huh. How do you feel about your kid in Dr. Ruth’s sex ed class versus Todd Akin’s? Do you feel differently about Warren Buffet penning standards for financial ethics versus Bernie Madoff? Of course you do. Because you’re normal.

Of course, the reason this analogy breaks down is that in each of these cases, there is no reason why the first of these things ever has to imply the second. They are all totally independent of each other. Conversely, in the case of the drone program, granting power to Barack Obama necessarily means granting it to future presidents for whom one has not voted and whose judgment one does not trust.

For what it’s worth, this writer agrees with Ball that President Obama has generally shown better judgment than Bush did on foreign and defense policy. But that’s beside the point. The debate about whether we are comfortable with the drone program and its resulting impact on executive authority should be independent of who happens to be the current resident of the White House.