Friday, April 6, 2012

Rachel Maddow's "Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power"

Rachel Maddow has become the adored authority of the American left. With her charm, trademark black-rimmed glasses, infectious laugh, and other noted attributes, Maddow is our big sister who joshes us, and will serve up a killer cocktail, along with a brilliant zinger. Since the start of her eponymous talk show on MSNBC during the 2008 election season, she has combined a mischievous sense of humor, dry wit and exhaustive research to become a cable news host very different from those either on her network or those on the right from FoxNews.

AS Jon Stewart noted when he interviewed Maddow recently, it seems that she has written a serious book  and invested a serious amount of research. She responded in passing, "I treated it as a second job." In Stewart's droll way, he said, "Well, you are making all of us look bad." When you look at the books from other talk-show hosts, the title usually resembles: "Why and How ____ (One political party) is Destroying America" or any of the vitriolic, hyperbolic titles of Ann Coulter ("Godless," "Treason," "Slander," "If Democrats Had Any Brains..."-- truly, titles that will provoke constructive and interesting debate). Bill O'Reilly's recent book on the assassination of Lincoln has been ridiculed by historians who have pointed out numerous factual errors (eg O'Reilly frequently refers to Lincoln pondering his decisions in the Oval Office, except the Oval Office did not exist during Lincoln's presidency). The books of Sean Hannity, Coulter, or Keith Olbermann on the left do not make arguments, they simply yell, scream and argue. These polemical publications do nothing but sell copies, provoking no genuine discussion or thought. Maddow, however, constructs an argument based on evidence, logic, and reason, something that surprised Janet Maslin in her rave review in "The New York Times."

In her new book, "Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power," Maddow employs a visual metaphor of American military policy set adrift in the ocean of twenty-first century foreign policy. The ship has set sail with no control, and, in her ominous tone, it sounds as if it is heading straight for an iceberg. The narrative begins in the age of Vietnam and how Johnson sought to deploy troops without calling up the National Guard or Reserves, because that would be too politically dangerous to the White House. (This was how G.W. Bush avoided any conflict during the war.) When Vietnam was beginning to wind down after 1973, Congress realized that they had been duped and their power, clearly laid out in the Constitution, had been sidestepped. The framers of the Constitution were clear in their desire to have war declared by the legislative body, not by the executive branch. A President, who could solely declare war, would inevitably become a tyrant, distracting from domestic issues in order to unite his citizens with a common, foreign enemy. By having Congress be responsible for declarations of war, this heady responsibility would be required to go through endless debate and be in the hands of many, rather than one. The clandestine operations that the US employed in the Cold War Era sought to avoid the political calamity of public debate. Mossadegh was brought down with the aid of the CIA in 1953. The Guatemalan president was deposed in 1954. Patrice Lumumba was killed in 1961, after Belgian and CIA operative funneled cash to his enemies. Che was assassinated in 1967. Congress did not authorize, nor even debate, a single one of these occurrences.

The 1973 War Powers Resolution Act sought to right a ship that had gone off course (to continue the usage of the naval metaphor). Under this act, the President must notify Congress within forty-eight hours of the deployment of military troops.  These forces cannot remain for more than sixty days, without Congress authorization or a declaration of war. Nixon and his Cabinet was apoplectic at such a law, which they believed mocked and humiliated the executive branch. Gerald Ford's cabinet, which housed later notables, such as Cheney and Rumsfeld, were further incensed by such Congressional chutzpah. However, this act simply reiterated what was stated in the Constitution. No serious challenge could truly be posed to this law and never was.

Things began to change during the Reagan administration. Reagan comes under the most sustained attack in Maddow's book. The Iran-Contra affair nearly brought the Administration to doom, and those of us on the left have always said that the charges laid at Reagan's feet were far more impeachable than lies about engaging in sexual congress with a consenting adult. Reagan's melodramatic imagination saw the world drawn along a Manichean division of good and evil. The evil Soviets were infiltrating anywhere and everywhere, especially in latin America. The honor-clad Americans with our liberty and freedom were the only ones who could defeat such nefarious enemies. What Reagan failed to see was the often illegal and morally suspicious tactics he utilized in order to weaken the Soviets (who at this point were weakened by years of non-productivity and failing infrastructure). Although Reagan came into office despising the Iranian regime for holding Americans hostage, he was able to turn around only years later and funnel large amounts of cash and weapons to them because it would help Nicaraguan Contras.

Under Clinton, the use of private sector contractors exploded. In order to have some involvement in the Balkan conflict that left millions dead from genocidal murder, Clinton found a way around the perceived political harm that could be done by committing troops to the region and instead supplied contracts to American companies. These contractors are supposed to save money, they don't. John McCain used to rail against the structure of military contracts (who knows if he does any more), because they were sucking money away from what the military actually needs.

The surprising aspect of the Maddow book is the lack of full-bodied discussion about the Bush II White House. For those of us on the left, 9/11 represents a significant turning point in many of these debates. The Patriot Act, Gitmo, the Department of Homeland Security hold an Orwellian place in our imagination. The intellectual maneuvering of John Yoo and Alberto Gonzales to allow the executive powers not guaranteed to it are frightening but find little place in Maddow's book. Does she demure on such topics because of their controversy (that seems unlikely)? Or, is it that authors have covered this material in depth (especially Jane Mayer and Naomi Klein)? However, covering this territory in the context of this book would have created a full appreciation to what this decade has done not just to unmoor American military policy but send it spinning out of control.

Regardless of the lack of another fifty-page chapter, what is present in Maddow's book is well worth reading. At times, her cutesy asides can detract from the intellectual rigor of her research, but it breaks the monotony of a rather withering account of the largest military (and largest organization, period) in the the world. If only, all talk-show hosts had Maddow's key talents, we would have a much firmer, fuller debate in this country about policy issues. But let's be honest, if all talk-show hosts had Maddow's curiosity and intelligence, Fox News would not exist. Sigh.

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