By Jueseppi B.
A squabble is a noisy quarrel over a trivial matter. A polemic is an aggressive attack on the opinions and principles of others. A screaming match is a contest in which contradictory points are stubbornly reiterated, with no regard for whatever else has been said. A political talk show is a gladiatorial contest in which squabbles, polemics and screaming matches are exploited for their entertainment value.
A book by the host of a political talk show is often an ancillary product or marketing tool. But “Drift,” by Rachel Maddow, whose show is on MSNBC, is much more. It is an argument — a sustained, lucid case in which points are made logically and backed by evidence and reason. What’s more, it follows one main idea through nearly a half-century. The subtitle, “The Unmooring of American Military Power,” explains exactly what “Drift” is about.
Ms. Maddow’s point is that the way we go to war has changed: that there has been an expansion of presidential power, a corresponding collapse of Congressional backbone and a diminution of public attention. She does not see this in conspiratorial terms, but she has an explanation for the step-by-step way it evolved. She thinks the transformation began with a question asked by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 as he prepared to more than double the ground forces in Vietnam: “You don’t think I oughta have a joint session, do you?” Did he need authorization from Congress, he asked the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to make a troop deployment like that?
That very question indicates that Johnson understood the importance of Congressional authority. But it is Ms. Maddow’s contention that subsequent presidents have even more deliberately sought to avoid dragging Congress into the conversation, because Congressional debates and military allocations upset the public. So does the calling up of troops. As the waging of war has grown increasingly secretive and privatized, presidents have built on precedent. They have seen less and less advantage in letting Congress weigh in on these decisions.
“Drift” says this slide was not inevitable. “And it wasn’t inexorable either,” Ms. Maddow writes.
“Drift” says this slide was not inevitable. “And it wasn’t inexorable either,” Ms. Maddow writes. “You can trace it to specific decisions, made for specific, logical reasons.” Her book does exactly that, in a crisp, sometimes too-smart-alecky style. (Is “Whoopsie!” the best thing to say about the accidental mishandling of nuclear weapons?) It’s easy to read and just as easy to wrestle with. It is a packaging coup for Ms. Maddow to use this blurb from Roger Ailes of Fox News: “People who like Rachel will love the book. People who don’t will get angry, but aggressive debate is good for America.”
Anyone itching for a fight can simply question Ms. Maddow’s references to the founding fathers. Whoopsie! She misquotes Thomas Jefferson as saying, “One of my favorite ideas is, never keep an unnecessary soldier.” But Jefferson actually cited two of his favorite ideas in that passage. And he probably had even more. Partisan bickering is a good way of missing the founders’ larger point: that they intended the power to declare war to lie with Congress, not with the president.
“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.” On its simplest level, “Drift” is a report card on how well the system has functioned.
President Reagan comes under this book’s heaviest fire for “an unwavering and steadfast faith in the correctness of whatever came out of his mouth.” Ms. Maddow methodically illustrates how Reagan learned as a candidate that saber rattling need not be linked to facts. She finds instances in which William F. Buckley, Senator Barry M. Goldwater and John Wayne, each disposed toward Reagan’s politics, found reason to question his veracity as he inveighed against America’s real and imagined enemies. A letter from Wayne accused Reagan of either “misinforming people” or being “damned obtuse when it comes to reading the English language.”
Ms. Maddow thinks the most durable restraint on presidents was put in place by Gen. Creighton W. Abrams, President Richard M. Nixon’s Army chief of staff. Under the Abrams Doctrine, which made it impossible to go to war without calling up the “in-your-neighborhood citizen-soldiers” of the Reserves and National Guard, official combat was no longer possible without the public’s noticing. But Ms. Maddow explains how this last restraint became undermined when a “skittish and unsure” President Clinton was faced with Bosnia and the use of private contractors became a form of damage control. Later parts of the book outline how the buildup of C.I.A. secret forces and these private contractors have dimmed public awareness of how and when war is waged.
Ms. Maddow’s way of making points, whether on the page or on the air, follows a distinct pattern. She begins a chapter with something small and piquant, like the Houbara bustard, a bird found in Pakistan and Afghanistan. She will explain the small thing, come up with a cute phrase about it (“poor bustard”) and suddenly leap to explain why the American incursion into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden managed not to be regarded as an outright act of war.
Thank the bustard (which turned out to inhabit conservation land within Pakistan because Arab falconers favor the bustard as falcon prey) for this book’s explanation of how drone warfare is waged. And thank Ms. Maddow for picking this and every other fight that “Drift” provokes. It will be a smarter public debate than the kinds we’re used to.
I’m glad to see Ms. Maddow’s “Drift” at number 1 on the N.Y.Times bestsellers list.