Catching Rachel’s Drift

A book review

by , May 11, 2012

I am addicted to Rachel Maddow: although my politics are somewhere to the right of Ayn Rand, and I have little patience with the paeans to the Great Leader that characterize MSNBC’s election year coverage, I must confess to watching Rachel’s show nearly five times a week. When she goes into one of her particularly partisan rants, I simply deploy the mute button: aside from that, I enjoy her humor, her relaxed demeanor, and her vivacity.

It wasn’t always so: years before she attained stardom, I was invited to be a guest on her Air America show. Being in a particularly grumpy and reactionary mood that day, but not knowing who she was, I googled her and discovered she was a lefty: after contemplating the possibility of going on with the deliberate intention of antagonizing her and her audience, I nixed the interview.

We all make mistakes, but that one was one of my more knuckleheaded moments. However, now that she’s a Media Star in the cable news firmament, and has written a book – on American foreign policy! – I get to make amends by giving her book a plug – albeit with a few caveats.

Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power (Crown Publishers, 275 pp.) is a fun read – and a serious one. It is full of little interpolations – like after her description of how Ed Meese evaded Sen. Daniel Inouye’s questioning in a congressional hearing on the Boland Amendment, which simply reads: "Ta da!" This can be distracting, but, hey, Rachel writes the way she talks – a good way to write a magazine piece or an internet column, but less impressive in book form. Nevertheless, it’s a style most readers will find amenable, and one that will certainly please her fans.

The book starts out with a telling anecdote: in the little town where Rachel lived, in Hampshire county, Massachusetts, the cornucopia of "Homeland Security" tax dollars provided funding to build a "Public Safety Complex" to house the fire truck. Because, you see, the brand new fire truck – also courtesy of the Homeland Security boondoggle — was too big to fit in their old firehouse: "So then we got some more Homeland money to build something big enough to house the new truck." And that’s not all they got: just beyond her neighbor’s back fence sits the pump house of the town’s municipal water supply. Most everyone is on private wells in that part of rural New England, but a few have been hooked up to the municipal water supply, and that supply is now guarded – thanks to the Homeland Security spending orgy — "by an eight foot chain link fence topped by barbed wire," complete with "a motion-sensitive electronically controlled motorized gate." The local folks, we are told, call it "Little Guantanamo." Okay, so no real harm done, right? Well, it turns out there’s a downside to this government largesse, as Maddow tells it:

"Mostly, it’s funny, but there is some neighborly consternation over how frowsy Little Guantanamo gets every summer. Even though it it’s town-owned land, access to Little Guantanamo is apparently above the security clearance of the guy paid to mow and brush-god. Right up to the fence, it’s my neighbors’ land and they keep everything trim and tidy. But inside that fence, the grass gets eye-high. It’s going feral in there."

A clearer example of the folly of "public" property couldn’t be invented: as any libertarian will tell her, the problem is the lack of individual ownership. Of course her neighbor keeps his or her property trim and tidy: that’s what individuals do when they own something like a piece of rural property that needs constant maintenance. When some distant federal agency is responsible for its upkeep, however, it’s a far different story, as the feral state of Little Guantanamo so eloquently testifies.

Ah, but the problem was that the caretaker didn’t have a security clearance – a detail that may or may not be sarcasm: in today’s world, it’s increasingly hard to tell. In any case, this example perfectly illustrates the theme of Drift: how the matchless military machine we’ve built and reinforced a thousand-fold post-9/11 became detached from public oversight, public interest, and common sense. The national security state, she says, has "become a leviathan" – sounding more like Ron Paul than your typical MSNBC’er. We are on "autopilot," with our wars, our ever-expanding military budget, and the tragedy is that the people seem inured to it. The business of empire has become routine.

Maddow also does something else in this book that will please conservative constitutionalists and libertarians, not just her "base" audience of 20 and 20-something liberals: she constantly points to the Founding Fathers’ warnings against militarism, and the dangers of unchecked centralized authority in the hands of a monarchical chief executive. The book is prefaced with a quote by James Madison: "Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded …" A constant theme in Drift, which describes the rise of the national security leviathan in roughly chronological order, is the arrogation of the war-making power to the President. This dangerous trend, she avers, can be traced to … Ronald Reagan, who had to think fast in order to wriggle out of the Iran-Contra scandal. Rachel tells us that it was all Ed Meese’s fault, for coming up with the concept of the "unitary presidency" – a legal doctrine expanded by both George W. Bush and the Obama administration.

This is pure malarkey. The unmooring of the war-making power from Congress to the executive was achieved, not by Reagan and Meese but by Harry Truman and Dean Acheson, Truman’s Secretary of State, who cited the authority of a United Nations resolution as all the legal justification needed for ordering US troops to Korea. Indeed, even this thin pretext was an invention, for the UN Security Council had never granted such permission, but Mr. The-Buck-Stops-Here also believed The Buck Starts Here – here being the White House, as opposed to where the Constitution locates it.

At the outset of the Korean war, on the left only Rep. Vito Marcantonio, of the Communist-controlled American Labor Party, opposed Truman’s usurpation of the war-making power. In the public square, it was left to the doughty old ultra-conservative Chicago Tribune to opine that "not one Korean in a thousand is worth the life of a husband, a son, or a brother." If China going communist wasn’t sufficient provocation to go to war, thundered the Tribune, then why die for Korea? Conservative columnist John O’Donnell seconded that motion, doubting whether South Korea was "worth a black eye on the face of one American soldier." John T. Flynn, a former liberal turned conservative constitutionalist, declared that the United States was "definitely and permanently launched on a career of militarism" as "an economic institution."

In Congress, it was the Republicans, led by Sen. Robert A. Taft, who attacked Truman’s precedent-setting decree. "If the President can intervene in Korea without Congressional approval," said Taft, "then he can go to war in Malaya, or Indonesia, or Iran, or South America." The liberal journals of opinion, The New Republic and The Nation, attacked the Republicans for their "appeasement" of the commies, deriding the "Stalinist caucus" in Congress and the conservative media. (The Democrats made "appeasement" a big issue in Taft’s reelection campaign, viciously attacking him for being "soft on communism," albeit without much success: he won in a landslide.) In 1951, Taft introduced a resolution forbidding the President to send troops abroad without congressional approval. Herbert Hoover went on the radio to demand US evacuation from the Korean peninsula.

Truman’s congressional supporters, in arguing in favor of the President’s unilateral action, averred that we were fighting a new kind of war. Like the theoreticians and grand strategists of our own endless "war on terrorism," the "experts" of yesteryear – liberal Democrats all – openly claimed the constitutional restraints on the war-making function of government had been rendered obsolete. Not only due to the emergence of atomic weaponry but also because of the very nature of the Communist enemy: a worldwide demonic conspiracy against Our Way of Life whose adherents were driven by an inhuman ruthlessness.

The moment when America morphed from a republic into an empire, and the president became an executive more powerful than any Roman emperor, was described by the libertarian writer Garet Garrett a few years later:

"After President Truman, alone and without either the consent or knowledge of Congress, had declared war on the Korean aggressor, 7000 miles away, Congress condoned his usurpation of its exclusive Constitutional power. More than that, his political supporters in Congress argued that in the modern case that sentence in the Constitution conferring upon Congress the sole power to declare war was obsolete.

"Mark you, the words had not been erased; they still existed in form. Only, they had become obsolete. And why obsolete? Because war may now begin suddenly, with bombs falling out of the sky, and we might perish while waiting for Congress to declare war."

We could rephrase that to read: "Because war may now begin suddenly, with planes falling out of the sky, and we might perish while waiting for Congress to declare war." Such reasoning is as puerile today as it was then, but the citizenry has changed in ways neither Garrett nor the Founding Fathers would approve. No, it didn’t begin with Reagan, as any historical detective without Maddow’s partisan bias would soon discover with the invaluable aid of Google. A few months after Truman’s usurpation, Garrett notes:

"Mr. Truman sent American troops to Europe to join an international army, and did it not only without a law, without even consulting Congress, but challenged the power of Congress to stop him. Congress made all the necessary sounds of anger and then poulticed its dignity with a resolution saying it was all right for that one time, since anyhow it had been done, but that hereafter it would expect to be consulted.

"At that time the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate asked the State Department to set forth in writing what might be called the position of Executive Government. The State Department, obligingly responded with a document entitled, ‘Powers of the President to Send Troops Outside of the United States—Prepared for the use of the joint committee made up of the Committee on Foreign Relations and the Committee on Armed Forces of the Senate, February 28, 1951.’

"This document, in the year circa 2950, will be a precious find for any historian who may be trying then to trace the departing footprints of the vanished American Republic. For the information of the United States Senate it said:

"’As this discussion of the respective powers of the President and Congress had made clear, constitutional doctrine has been largely moulded by practical necessities. Use of the congressional power to declare war, for example, has fallen into abeyance because wars are no longer declared in advance.’

"Caesar might have said it to the Roman Senate. If constitutional doctrine is molded by necessity, what is a written Constitution for?

The "international army" Garrett refers to was the first contingent of US troops sent to bolster the forces of NATO, which was then being born. That today NATO forces are fighting in Afghanistan, in the front lines of our latest war against an Implacable Enemy, is one of those little ironies of history us right-wing "isolationists" get to enjoy all to ourselves. Because apparently nobody else – least of all lefty MSNBC anchors who write books – seems to know the real history of how American presidents got to act as if they were Roman emperors, sending our centurions to the far-flung corners of the Empire at whim.

For some reason I didn’t expect this book to be quite so partisan: perhaps, being a Maddow fan, I have my own biases. Yet even in the discussion of the Vietnam war, it seems only Republicans – Nixon and Ford – come in for criticism. Lyndon Baines Johnson and John F. Kennedy get off scott free: we’re come a long way from "Hey hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" – the favorite slogan of the left-wing antiwar movement during that tumultuous era.

When it comes to the Reagan years, Maddow points to the intellectual and political primacy of the "Team B" neoconservatives, who grossly overestimated Soviet military prowess in order to ramp up defense spending, and yet she misses the neocon-Reaganite conflict over Lebanon – Reagan got out against their advice – and Reagan’s reasonable response to the dramatic implosion of communism, which the neocons thought was a clever ploy to lull the West. Reagan – correctly – believed  the terminal crisis of communism was real. Maddow the partisan is blind to this history.

The invasion of Grenada gets a full chapter, but the Balkan war conducted by the Clintons is mentioned favorably: there is nary a hint that President Clinton never went to Congress for approval to use force, and no discussion of Republican opposition to that war – with the Republican House threatening to cut off funding, a move denounced as near-treason by Democratic partisans (and Bill Kristol) at the time. Clinton’s bombing of Iraq, the precursor to the Bush invasions, is not part of Maddow’s history. Likewise, Libya – the Obama administration’s reiteration of Truman’s precedent — is entirely missing from this account.

Maddow is at her best in her critique of the drone war, and the CIA’s drift into becoming an unaccountable secret military organization that conducts wars without congressional oversight — and without public knowledge. Her critique of the privatization program initiated by the Pentagon under the second Bush administration is valuable in that she points out how this has reinforced the secrecy and unaccountability that has unmoored our war-making (and policy-making) elites from the Constitution, the public consciousness, and the rule of law. War, she concludes, "has become almost an autonomous function of the American state. It never stops."

A high point of this book is the chapter entitled "An $8 Trillion Fungus Among Us," a riveting account of how our nuclear weapons arsenal has degenerated over time and become a deadly danger to those it was designed to defend. Nuclear fuzes, for example, are failing, but there is no one who knows any longer how to fix them. Maddow quotes one government report to the effect that the Department of Energy "had lost knowledge of how to manufacture the material because it had kept few records of the process when the material was made in the 1980s and almost all staff with expertise on production had retired or left the agency." "Maybe this should have been a sign," she remarks:

"When all the scientists and engineers are dead, or senile, or at least just fishing, and the know-how is gone with them, isn’t it fair to say that a destroy-the-world-thousands-of-times-over nuclear weapons program has run its course?"

Ya think?

The scary-funny mishaps of our nuclear weapons arsenal – like the time we ejected a couple of nukes in the Spanish countryside – are detailed in Drift to great effect. Did you know we’ve lost track of eleven nukes over the years? And that’s just what they admit to! My favorite is the story about how the government and the Pentagon responded to the truly jaw-dropping accidents and reports of "lost" and decomposing nukes:

"When all the investigations and reviews and task force studies were completed, the consensus was clear: they all found erosion and degradation and a general web of sloth and anciety within our nation’s nuclear mission. The root cause? Lack of self-esteem. The men and women handling the nukes were suffering a debilitating lack of pride. Their promotion rates, it was noted, were well behind the service average. We had to remind them in big ways and small that they were important to us…."

The solution? "Money!" Always more: never less. That’s the rule for all government agencies and institutions, a reality Maddow’s ideology doesn’t let her apply to the civilian sector – but never mind.

Drift is a history of US interventionism seemingly written for readers of the Huffington Post and those who rely on National Public Radio for their regular diet of news and opinion. It lacks any discussion of the idea of "collective security," or any critique of liberal internationalism – glaring omissions in view of the recent trajectory of US foreign policy. In spite of its partisan tone, however, the book succeeds in making an effective (albeit somewhat narrow) case for the reconfiguration of the process by which we go to war – by returning to the Constitution and heeding the warnings of the Founders.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

This summer, the University of Colorado at Denver is giving a course in the history of American conservative and libertarian thought in America, with a focus on the conservative-libertarian debate. The textbooks include Murray Rothbard’s The Betrayal of the American Right, George Nash’s classic The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, and my own Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement. Instructor: Ryan McMaken. You can sign up here, even if you attend CU at a different campus.

Read more by Justin Raimondo