Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Heavily Armed and Adrift

Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power

In Drift, Rachel Maddow challenges her readers to an entertaining examination of recent American defense policy. The early chapters, filled with examples of Reagan-era skullduggery and executive overreach, make for easy reading from a liberal's point of view. Tougher chapters for the left cover Clinton's and Obama's tenures in the Oval Office. For example, Maddow tracks the rise in contracted-out conflict to Clinton's engagement in the Balkans, where US military casualties were to be avoided at all costs, and a stew of think tankers, indulged by a Democratic White House, who had interests in defense companies and/or a devotion to private-sector-is-always-better dogma.

Drift leaps over many of the well-covered 2nd Bush administration's aggressive defense policies, and the book is better for it. By then, Maddow has already indicted the extreme wing of presidential-prerogative philosophy in her chapters on Reagan and the 1st Bush administration. She turns instead to the still relatively undisturbed and yet highly disturbing acceleration of unmanned war in the age of Obama. Maddow rightly questions  the scope and constitutionality of our ongoing drone strikes, carried out by secretive commands with little debate and insufficient oversight, often in territories that aren't technically at war with us.

Maddow takes particular aim at the authorities under which such strikes are executed. She doesn't particularly focus on the arguments that might be made to justify a capacity to destroy targets of opportunity (such as Osama bin Laden). Drift centers on the question of congressional responsibility for oversight, and reminds her readers, if not explicitly, that the tolerated actions of a preferred President often turn into the outrageous abuses of a chief executive from an opposing party--see conservatives' denunciation of Obama in Libya and their past support for the far-less-justified assault on Grenada under Reagan (which was denounced at the time by every other member of the UN Security Council, not just Russia and China).

Maddow's arguments don't stop at war's edge. David Petreaus's Counterinsurgency Doctrine catches flack as over-ambitious and quixotic. For all the heat that "COIN" is taking these days, it's still difficult to find an alternative short of ending an engagement as happened in Vietnam. Wisely, Maddow doesn't spend time suggesting alternative strategies, but she also doesn't confront the consequences to innocents in a world without American-led intervention--Libya doesn't make the book, possibly Drift had already gone to print.

At it's core, Drift argues that any war worth fighting should be fought with the approval of Congress, concurrent funding through bonds or taxes, and the legitimate investment of the American people--not just the one percent who have served in the armed forces in recent decades and their families. These are all worthy goals, but few Presidents will take accept their costs voluntarily if less strenuous, however dubious, alternatives are available.

Drift isn't dry, far from it. A host of compelling and often entertaining quotes and historical anecdotes carry Maddow's argument farther than a straight-up polemic ever could. A prime example is a letter from John Wayne, which accused Reagan of either “misinforming people” or being “damned obtuse when it comes to reading the English language," as Reagan harangued audiences about the betrayal entailed in returning the Panama Canal to Panama.

From citing well-founded fears of the founding fathers to a devastating critique of America's nuclear arsenal and black-box campaigns, Rachel Maddow offers every American good reasons to request a return to a reigned in armed forces and a strictly supervised Commander in Chief. “America’s structural disinclination to declare war is not a sign that something’s gone wrong,” she writes. “It’s not a bug in the system. It is the system.” It's up to us to ask how that system can be repaired and elect the men and women who are willing to do so.

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