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The Debate over the Emperor’s Leaks (but not his Drones)

Originally posted at Bullets and Ballots.

I was wrong. In a moment of uncharacteristic optimism, I suggested that the drone debate had gone mainstream. It didn’t in fact go anywhere. Instead, we got a “Leak War.” No discussion of anything substantive, nothing about the use of drones. When the news cycle passes onto the next inconsequential debate, the imperial presidency will remain, perhaps stronger.

Congressional Republicans, to some extent rightly, pounced on the President for his bragging about his war prowess. Militarist stalwarts like John McCain and Lindsey Graham are focusing, however only on the leaks and not their content, using what they can against this president without affecting the power of any president wage war. The evident hypocrisy of Team Obama using leaks to shore up the president’s image while aggressively prosecuting unfriendly leakers is actually not all that evident to our betters. Republicans are upset because the President is taking credit for using his Imperial powers.

And the content of the leaks, the very existence of the President’s “kill list” is now a non-issue.

There’s talk. There’s even some focus on what was leaked from reliably critical sources. There is, of course, much more talk from the opposition, loud talk, purposeful talk. Calls for an independent counsel, for tougher legislation, for resignations — Holder’s, not Panetta’s. And there’s defensive talk from Obama supporters and self-proclaimed progressives, praising the managerial warrior-president or at the very least begrudgingly pledging to vote for him. After all, Republicans are the real warmongers and, anyways, we want to make sure our guy stays Emperor.

This talk — this leak war — is perfectly suited to the narrative style of our media, both new and old. Pithy statements by elected representatives and grandiose — somewhat truthful — accusations made on the floor of the Senate and the House, faithfully reproduced by reporters and supporters on cable shows or partisan websites, by Jon Stewart or Fox and Friends. The statements are succinct and trite enough for reproduction by us plebs as status updates and tweets. Or blog posts.

This talk is mere talk, not intended to change anything. Our elected representative know that indignant demands for an independent counsel or tougher legislation have no real import beyond a few political points. The President’s war will continue. Moreover, with or without Congressional action, the war-making and war-expanding powers of the President avoid scrutiny. In fact, if leaking information is further criminalized, this will only push the War on Terror further into the shadows .

What isn’t said is far more important. No questions are being asked about whether or not the drone program is counterproductive or even legal, or whether Congress has any role in overseeing the President’s war, or at least in pushing back against the Executive’s inexorable power grab. As Bernard Finel puts it:

But what is interesting to me is that no one seems to be asking whether this leaked information should ever have been kept secret.

I mean, don’t we have a right to know details about how the President chooses to kill individuals? Indeed, I’d argue that while using drones may be a defensible policy, I see no reason to do so in secret.

In a similar fashion, why should our involvement in cyber attacks be kept secret? Look, this is potentially an act of war. The public has a right to know what we are doing, since there are major potential consequences to those decisions.

The default should be transparency. We shouldn’t even be talking about leaks, because everything that was “leaked” recently should have been public in the first place.

By not asking such questions — focusing indignation on the mode of messaging rather than the message — the loyal opposition acquiesce to the further expansion of Presidential power.

But, this is American imperialism, a bipartisan product of all three branches of government. Whereas emperors of old were allowed to build monuments and have themselves declared to be gods, the American president must act in a more magnanimous manner so as not to upset the opposition, but instead congratulate them for their deference and inaction. Even President Bush, in his efforts to act the Emperor — the warrior president –he, or rather his party, ultimately paid the price for gloating too much. Presidents should be advised to avoid such hubris.

Kill away, Mr. President. Just don’t go bragging to the Times about it.

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Philippe Duhart

Philippe Duhart

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