Thursday, June 7, 2012

Book Review: Rachel Maddow - Drift

Rachel Maddow has established herself as a strong voice in progressive politics through her eponymous show on MSNBC and, in recent months, through appearances on mainstream political programs like Meet the Press.  While some commentators extend their brand through books that serve as an extension of their television programs or newspaper columns, Maddow took a slightly different tack with the release of her first book, Drift - The Unmooring of American Military Power. While much of Drift is written with a certain sense of outrage, Maddow’s is less Howard Beale “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” and more Jon Stewart’s “You believe this shit?” Viewers of her show will recognize in Ms. Maddow’s writing a familiar editorial voice interspersed with little known facts and information she marshals in support of her positions.
Maddow's thesis is that Vietnam, which stood as a cautionary tale in the unchecked power of  the President, was quickly turned on its head through a combination of Congressional weakness, Executive assertions of unilateral authority in foreign affairs, a constantly expanding military budget and the growth of military contractors to excise what used to be sober debate and a meaningful weighing of consequences about whether to commit armed forces, to a choice largely removed from the checks and balances placed within our Constitution.  Drift is not a reflexive lefty screed, but rather, asks difficult questions about the trade-offs we as a country have made in defense of our nation, and often without our input or consent.
Maddow's narrative begins with the errors of Vietnam, where the slippery slope that started with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution ended with more than 500,000 troops in country by 1968. As the war wound down, after the invasions of Laos and Cambodia, the endless bombing campaigns and the tortured peace negotiations in Paris, Congress finally re-asserted its Constitutional prerogatives in 1975, tersely advising President Ford that the spigot of money that flowed to Southeast Asia was being cut off once and for all.  That decision was coupled with a shift in policy related to the National Guard and Reserves introduced by General Creighton Abrams, the U.S. Commander in Vietnam from 1968 to 1972 and Army Chief of Staff from 1972 to 1974.  Abrams launched the "Total Force Policy," which inextricably tied the National Guard to the active duty military, mandating that the Guard and Reserves take responsibility for certain actions that would necessitate their deployment in any future conflicts.  The Total Force Policy was, as Maddow notes, "elegant in its simplicity," because it would affect communities throughout the country as reserve members who held regular jobs were suddenly uprooted and sent to far away lands. Its intended effect was to make going to war more difficult, but as we will see, it did little to achieve its mission.
While leaders in Congress may have been feeling their oats, Maddow introduces us to the ominously named "Committee on the Present Danger," a band of hard-line Cold Warriors from the mid-1970s who presaged intelligence failures of the pre-Iraq War era with inflated reporting about the Communist threat.  Back then, people like General Daniel Graham and Paul Nitze got together to bemoan our purported weakness in the face of a Soviet arms build-up, and were invited into the CIA by some guy named George H.W. Bush to offer their own analysis of Soviet armed forces.  As Maddow discusses, this "Team B" generated a highly speculative report based on little hard evidence that the Soviets were not only replicating much of our defense effort, but moving forward with next generation technology that could imperil our well being.  Naturally, most of what they wrote was bogus, but as some of these men shifted from the bomb throwing bleachers to the halls of government when Ronald Reagan became President, their unfounded fears and challenging of conventional orthodoxy became policy, leading to a massive arms build up and huge profits for the defense contractors who made those weapons. 
As Maddow discusses, the Reagan years were replete with jingoistic nonsense, nowhere more than our laughable invasion of the tiny Caribbean nation of Grenada to "save" several hundred American students who were there during some overblown political instability.  Maddow’s deep dive into this farcical chapter in Reagan's Presidency could have been plucked from one of her TV show’s segments, as it is replete with her signature mix of granular level facts and editorial outrage.  Maddow goes into painstaking detail about a mission that was riddled with errors, not the least of which was a SEAL team helicopter jump that resulted in four deaths and the fact that the military was unaware that some students resided at two other campuses besides the one they successfully "liberated."  A mental hospital was accidentally bombed, killing 18 innocent civilians and none other than Fidel Castro is reported to have, through a diplomatic emissary, advised the State Department ahead of time that the few soldiers Cuba had on the island would stand down.  Of course, none of that, or the estimated $135 million price tag mattered, as Secretary of State George Schultz observed when a "rescued" student kissed the tarmac upon his arrival in South Carolina. "Mr. President," Schultz is quoted as saying, "the fat lady just sang."
The deeper into Reagan's tenure we go, the more mendacious his foreign policy becomes.  Maddow resurrects many of the facts around Iran-Contra, and, like the cherry picking of information by Team B in the 1970s presaged the WMD fiasco in Iraq, Iran-Contra had its own "Curveball," a source claiming inside information about the Iranian regime, who turned out to be a charlatan. In this case, the source had a name (and an occupation: arms dealer) - Manucher Ghorbanifar, who sold Reagan's men on the idea of the existence of a nascent group of Iranian moderates eager to overthrow the Ayatollah if only the Americans would offer them weapons.  In exchange, these purported Westernized elements would use their leverage with Hezbollah to get Americans who had been taken hostage in Lebanon released.
Like questions that would be raised about "Curveball" after the Iraq invasion began, Ghorbanifar had a CIA dossier that labeled him an "intelligence fabricator and a nuisance." No less an authority than Reagan's National Security Adviser Bud McFarlane called him a "moron." No matter. Reagan was not going to get tagged with a hostage drama like his predecessor and sent not one, not two, but three shipments (with the Israelis acting as middlemen) of anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, with a small sum of money for transport landing in an off shore bank account.  Some entrepreneurial NSC staffer named Oliver North had the brilliant idea of taking that money and using it to fund the Nicaraguan "Contras," a group of allegedly pro-democratic elements fighting the big bad Commies running that country - thus turning what began as a potentially impeachable offense for selling arms to Iran in violation of Arms Export Control Act into a potentially impeachable offense for violation of the Boland Amendment, which prohibited the funding the Contras. Maddow quotes from declassified minutes of a 1984 meeting of high ranking Reagan Administration officials that has eerie echoes of Iraq and Afghanistan, as Ed Meese, Bill Casey and others confirm the need for written sign off for their attempts to fund the Contras from lawyers in the Department of Justice even as they speculate about whether the President would face the threat of impeachment for their actions.
Naturally, the scheme unravels, followed by Congressional hearings and the appointment of an  independent counsel, who ultimately indicts the Secretary of Defense, two National Security Advisers, an Assistant Secretary of State and the Chief of Covert Operations at the CIA. Reagan skips away unscathed (his memory is a bit shaky even before he is diagnosed with Alzheimers) and his successor issues blanket pardons on his way out the door in late 1992 to clean up any remaining loose ends.  That justice was not served in this scandal goes without saying, but what Maddow argues is that a more damaging idea took root - that the President and his men could act with impunity because the executive's purview over foreign policy could not be challenged.  This idea that "if the President does it, it is not a crime" was first articulated by Richard Nixon, but the concept was formalized into a policy construct called the "unitary executive" theory created by lawyers in Reagan's Justice Department (some of whom would land in George W. Bush's White House and Justice Department). Additional support for this theory of executive power was expounded on in a 140 page "minority" dissent to the Iran-Contra report.  The author? A back bencher from Wyoming named Dick Cheney.
Under George H.W. Bush, a potential inflection point for a "peace dividend" was quickly lost when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. As with so many through the looking glass moments after the fall of the Soviet Union, Hussein's actions (and our reaction) result in a lot of unintended consequences that would shape foreign policy for the next 20 years.  Maddow's discussion of Bush's torment over the decision to go to war is telling.  She quotes from Bush's private diary - "I have never felt a day like this in my life. I am very tired … My lower gut hurts .. My mind is a thousand miles away. I simply can't sleep." Bush's introspection is heartening, especially when compared to the seemingly blithe manner in which his son made the same decision.  Also of interest is the deep skepticism of the then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, whose contrarian views and desire for a clear mission and exit strategy contrast sharply with Powell's complicity in amplifying bogus reports of Iraq's WMD program using manipulated, and in some cases, outright false, information when he served as Secretary of State under George W. Bush.
While Bush may have been slightly more conciliatory toward Congress, the resolution it passed was not a formal declaration of war, but rather, an expression of support for a United Nations resolution permitting international forces to forcibly remove Hussein from Kuwait if he did not voluntarily quit the country. Bush also held back on announcing the call up of National Guard and Reserve troops (remember the Abrams Doctrine?) until after the November 1990 election even though he made the decision about a week beforehand.  And when a group of Congressmen attempted to enjoin Bush from committing troops unless Congress declared war (as Article I and the War Powers Act require), a federal judge essentially punted - confirming that yes, in the abstract, Congress, and only Congress can declare war, but that unless and until Congress declined to declare war and the President acted anyway, the Court could not rule on the matter.  In other words, the judiciary was not going to stop a President from using our armed forces, leaving it to Congress to "tie the hands" of the President.  To be sure, 1990 looked much different than 1975.
The Reagan-Bush years, Maddow argues, are a key turning point in how the use of military force is considered.  Reagan set precedent that Congress could be bypassed (leaders were not even told about the Grenada operation until after it had been launched) while also creating a parallel foreign policy making arm that was extra-constitutional - literally. Government employees solicited private citizens to help fund the Contras entirely outside any federal strictures or Congressional oversight.  Meanwhile, George H.W. Bush deployed an armed force of more than 400,000 troops to the Arabian desert with little input from Congress. Bush’s Secretary of Defense (that Cheney guy again!), also launched the beginning of what would explode into a massive military contractor industrial complex when he signed off on a contract with a company called Brown & Root (a subsidiary of something called Halliburton. Heard of it?) to provide support services for the military.
The discussion of LOGCAP, as the contract was called, shows Maddow's contrarian side - her argument is that outsourcing was largely driven by costs the military was incurring for things like child care services for its men and women in uniform.  By reducing the military rolls of primarily "support" staff, the Pentagon was freed to divert more of that money to costly weapons systems while its contractors didn't have to worry about pesky things like base housing or pension benefits.  Whatever the reason, outsourcing became an equal opportunity policy, as Maddow quotes none other than Vice President Al Gore praising the work of Halliburton for its support service in the Balkans.  Of course, outsourcing also reduced the need for National Guard and Reserve troops, weakening one of the ties that bound our decision makers from casually going to war.  Now, instead of neighbors being shipped to places like Kosovo that few Americans could even find on a map, companies like Halliburton, DynCorp and others took over those jobs.
While privatization is lauded by supporters arguing that the private sector can do work more efficiently and at a lower cost, Maddow shows that cost overruns, sometimes into the hundreds of million of dollars, occur, and seamier actions, including trafficking in sex slavery, are not isolated incidents. Curiously, Maddow chooses not to rattle off the litany of indiscretions tied to Iraq, from faulty shower heads that electrocuted servicemen to overbilling detailed in reports by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq. Regardless, what we do know is that actions by private contractors in other countries create murky legal issues, as has been seen when the infamous company Blackwater had employees involved in several high profile incidents where innocent people were killed in Iraq and that many of the services they provide are not done at less cost to the taxpayer. 
But Maddow's lens is wider than just contractor malfeasance.  Her argument is far more sweeping in discussing how our military, and its use as a fighting force, has become unmoored from public (or political) debate.  After 9/11, the expanded use of special forces created, as Maddow quotes the journalist Jeremy Scahill, "a virtual stand alone operation that acted outside the military chain of command and in direct coordination with the White House." And because politicians are reluctant to question military spending (which has more than doubled in the decade since 9/11), "the Pentagon can now spend those dollars in a way that insulates the decision makers from the political consequences of making life uncomfortable from the voting public."  What our leaders have created is the idea of "frictionless war," an experience, as Maddow describes it, not unlike Muzak, buzzing in the background but easily ignored if you are not among the 1% of the population in, or related to, someone serving in the military.
What the “military" or "war" now means is something entirely divorced from the reality that the 99% of us experience.  The military is all volunteer, leaders in Congress not only do not challenge the Pentagon's budget, they give the Pentagon things the Pentagon doesn't even ask for or want. Defense contractors who build weapons systems are woven into the fabric of hundreds of Congressional districts that provide steady streams of income and jobs for our citizens, making the termination of any weapons system, vehicle or munition nearly impossible.  In 2012, to speak out against the idea of shrinking our military is practically verboten.  Finally, the Total Force Policy proved a nullity - deployments, stop loss orders and multiple tours of duty are now accepted fact that few rise to challenge and when they do, as Representative Charles Rangel attempted to do a few years back by calling for the re-introduction of a military draft, no one takes seriously. 
Taken together, what Maddow persuasively shows is that literal decisions of life and death have been taken out of political discourse because the de facto view of politicians and citizens alike is that the military is off limits from debate.  Not only that, but the line between what is purely military and what is civilian has been blurred, not just through the appointment of former military leaders like Michael Hayden and David Petraeus to head the CIA, but the coordinated efforts of the CIA, NSA and others with the military in theaters of war. The natural result of this is that the Pentagon, and the rise of the “super secret” intelligence community that has been formed after 9/11, are their own “third rail” of politics, woe to anyone who questions or challenges anything from libraries being asked to provide information under the PATRIOT Act to whether drone strikes in Yemen are legal. 
Maddow lays out her case for how and why this has happened but is far more concerned about the question of whether this is a good outcome for a democracy and here, I think her argument becomes blurry. Part of this is practical. The “enemy” is no longer primarily a defined force representing a country, and Americans have, for the most part, accepted the fact that an Al-Qaeda terrorist in Yemen is indistinguishable from one in Pakistan and our response to locating one should be a Hellfire missile, not a search warrant.   Part of this is political.  While Maddow rightly points out that leaders in Congress have been cowed by the use of executive power, I think there is something to be said for the idea that foreign policy cannot be dictated by 535 disparate voices.  While there is no question that the wild growth in military contractors is not a good (or cost effective) way to run a military or that there has been an overreliance on classifying documents and decisions to shield them from public view, when actions like destroying interrogation tapes of Al-Qaeda suspects who were tortured are not prosecuted because “lawyers said it was ok” or laws are passed to provide retroactive (!) immunity to telecommunications companies for complying with governmental actions that likely ran afoul of FISA, we must accept that elected officials have made a knowing decision that this type of extra-legal activity is going to be countenanced.
I have two minor criticisms of Ms. Maddow’s otherwise thoughtful (and thought provoking) book.  The first is the book's penultimate chapter, a digression into our aging nuclear weapons stockpile.  While the narrative itself is interesting, chronicling near misses where nukes were mishandled, fell from the sky but miraculously did not fully detonate and the lack of training our current crop of nuclear engineers has to fully maintain (think Jiffy Lube for nukes!) these true WMD, it is not until deep into this discussion that Maddow ties the discussion together with the remainder of the book.  At $8 trillion and counting, Maddow notes that we spent more on our nuclear arsenal in the second half of the 20th century than we did on "Medicare, education, social service, disaster relief, non-nuclear scientific research, environmental protection, food safety inspectors, highway maintenance, cops, prosecutors, judges and prisons, combined." What Maddow argues is that we are moving in the same direction when it comes to our military/intelligence budget.  As she notes, "the more money and work and time it takes to build something, the more power it accrues, and the more effort it takes to make it go away."  
This axiom is being tested as a law that was passed last year requiring across the board cuts in the Department of Defense (a/k/a “sequestration”) slowly approaches. There is already substantial wringing of hands that this poison pill, which was inserted into the law to focus the attention of deal makers seeking to reach agreement on long-term budget reduction, will ever happen because no one wants to be viewed as “weak on defense.” And here is where much of the book reads as past as prologue – saber rattling over foes, both actual and perceived, has largely defined the post-World War II era. First it was Communism, be it in the rice paddies of Vietnam or the fevered imaginations of Team B. Now it is terrorism, an idiom that must be “defeated” through a combination of hyper vigilance and substantial expenditures, but will never have “peace treaty on the desk of the USS Missouri” closure, which just perpetuates the cycle until the next existential threat is identified.
My other complaint has to do with her use of sources, a place I would not have expected to raise an alarm.  Like most books, Maddow provides source notes, but she does not provide footnotes or endnotes, and for this, I have to say I am a little surprised.  Offering the reader a general map for further reading and what was used to support your work is one thing, but not providing direct references to information is another thing altogether.  That a Stanford graduate and Rhodes Scholar, and someone who is so diligent in her desire to “get it right,” would opt for a cursory overview of her research material does not make sense.
My criticism notwithstanding, Maddow has produced an important book about a complicated subject.  Readers interested in learning more about the growth of the “military-industrial” complex and why it matters that it has largely been removed from the political debate will find Rachel Maddow’s book an enlightening look into those troubling questions.


  1. That was a thorough review... I did enjoy that chapter on our nuclear stockpile and mishaps.. but I see what you mean. I could not get over the incredible Keystone Cop behavior of our military in situations such as our invasion of Grenada.

  2. It is a continual frustration that this subject has indeed become unmoored from meaningful political debate in this country. With military spending at 60% of our budget, it should be first in line for belt tightening. Instead it is still off-limits.

  3. Just as Curveball was given a Burn Notice and the things he says are disregarded by the intelligence community, it is time for us to come together to challenge and disregard things such as the irrationality that led to the Iraq war and other things.