Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Review: Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power

From Drift, by Rachel Maddow:
Open quote 

Remember the words of James Madison: 'The Constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war in the Legislature.'"

After the jump, my review.

Grade: B-

The Constitution names the President as the Commander in Chief but gives to Congress the power to declare war. So, how is it that the last time Congress actually declared war was in 1941, even though the country has gone to war numerous times since then -- Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Persian Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan? That's the question Rachel Maddow sets out to answer. She lays out the history of how US Presidents over a half century have steadily shifted the Constitutional balance on war-making powers, mostly with implicit consent from an acquiescent Congress.

LBJ took the country to war in Vietnam with a Congressional resolution, not a declaration of war. The bitter taste left by that war caused Congress to pass the War Powers Resolution over the veto of President Nixon. That act restricted the president's unilateral war-making power. It wasn't just Congress made bitter by the war. The generals were, too. General Creighton Abrams reorganized the military -- the Abrams Doctrine -- in a way that made it impossible to have a large-scale military deployment without calling up the Reserves and the National Guard. Abrams knew that doing so would force the president to have public support for any war, which Abrams wanted to have before fighting another one.

Maddow explains how future Presidents whittled away at these restrictions. President Reagan simply flouted the laws, using secret sales of weapons to Iran to secretly finance the contras in their proxy war in Nicaragua. When caught red-handed, Reagan "cooked up the ad hoc, backfilling defense that no crime had been committed, that the legal constraint the president had taken such great secretive pains to elude didn't really exist."

President George H.W. Bush followed in Reagan's footsteps, asserting that he didn't need authorization from Congress to launch the Persian Gulf War, although he did ultimately seek, and get, a resolution of support, perhaps because the Abrams Doctrine still made it difficult to go to war without the support of the public. Then, the Abrams Doctrine, too, was eroded. Bush started and President Clinton carried on a massive outsourcing effort at the Pentagon, reducing the need to call up the Reserves or National Guard for support functions for an army at war.

In 2001, President George W. Bush was in the White House, surrounded by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who had worked in the Nixon/Ford White House. Still bitter that Congress had ever restricted the executive branch's power to wage war, they launched the disastrous Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, with much of the war-making outsourced to private contractors like Halliburton and Blackwater. But they overreached. The Iraq War was a fiasco so large that large call-ups of Reserves and National Guard were necessary. The popularity of the Iraq War plummeted.

The defense posture of the US has hardly shifted under the Democratic administration of Barack Obama. The US appears to be in a state of perpetual war, in part because of world events, but also in part, Maddow claims, because "we've built ourselves -- to the exclusion of all other priorities -- a military superstructure we can't use for anything other than war and that we can no longer afford. And it's going to be really hard to take this thing apart."

Maddow's liberalism shows throughout, with snide descriptions of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and, of course, George W. Bush. But try to put that aside. She also says unkind things about Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. It's the unfettered power of the presidency that's her real target here, not individuals. There is important history reviewed here. There are Constitutional principles involved that ought to matter to liberals and conservatives alike. It's not obvious to me which side each should take. That makes this an important book, despite the snarky interjections and jokey asides that make the book sometimes read more like a transcript of Maddow's cable television show than a serious history.


"The assertion of congressional power had strong support across party lines. When an incensed President Nixon vetoed the War Powers Resolution, both the House and the Senate overrode that veto with votes to spare."

"Under Abrams's Total Force Policy, the Guard and Reserves would no longer be shelters to avoid service but rather integral parts of the nation's fighting capacity. It would be operationally impossible to go to war without calling them up."

"If accountability for military action to Congress and to the public was the foundational disincentive to war we got from the Founding Fathers, Reagan was taking a pickax to that foundation. He claimed the private right to go to war, in secret, against the express will of Congress."

"When Ronald Reagan extricated himself from the Iran-Contra scandal by cutting one of those crucial mooring lines -- without considered forethought or specific course headings in mind -- it set the country adrift and heading into a dangerous tide. Congress has never since effectively asserted itself to stop a president with a bead on war."

"The idea of the Abrams Doctrine -- and Jefferson's citizen-soldiers -- was to make it so we can't make war without causing a big civilian hullabaloo. Privatization made it all easy, and quiet."

1 comment:

Jason said...

I like what Glenn Greenwald recently said about the expansion of Presidential war powers: "Is it really a difficult idea that if you vest power in a President you like, you're necessarily vesting it in future ones you don't like?"

Jason Lemons