Friday, June 29, 2012


When I heard that Rachel Maddow had written a book, I wasn't sure what to think.  I like Rachel a lot; I don't watch her show all that often, but do catch it from time to time.  What I love about her is her exuberance, her genuine geeky enthusiasm, which seems to me more about policy than politics.  Of course, she's also a political commentator, and at times she can seem pretty uninterestingly partisan--a lefty version of Bill-O or Hannity. Just because I agree with Rachel and disagree with Fox News personalities, doesn't mean I don't get how divisive and ultimately bad for our country all that partisan back-and-forth name-calling is.

(Also, why do I call her Rachel?  I don't know her--she's a respected reporter and commentator--shouldn't I call her Maddow?  But she's younger than I am, old habits die hard, I guess.)  

But she wrote a book, and it became a best-seller, and I thought I should read it, hoping desperately it would be better than all those 'Liberals Torture Kittens' books produced by the likes of Ann Coulter and (gag) Glen Beck.  I thought it likely that Rachel's book would be about policy, in this case, US military policy.  What I did not expect was a book this well-written.  I did not expect a book this funny.  I did not expect a book scarier than anything by Stephen King.  Above all, I did not expect a book making essentially a conservative case for constitutionality. 

Drift argues basically this: the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers is nowhere more important than at times of war. The Founders believed that, since the President is commander-in-chief, the executive branch would generally be the pro-war branch.  That the decision to wage war, if left only in the hands of the executive, would be made more frequently if another branch didn't provide a check to executive power.  In other words, Presidents are probably going to be the guys wanting to go to war, so its a good thing they can't without Congressional approval. 

Only, in recent years, the clear meaning of the Constitution has been eroded to the point of meaninglessness.  Maddow quotes George H. W. Bush's journal, where he describes the tremendous pressure he felt, as the man with the sole authority to send young men and women to combat.  Uh, what?  When it began to look like we might go to war without so much as a Congressional debate, a Representative, Ron Dellums, filed a federal lawsuit.  Maddow quotes at length from Judge Harold Greene's decision in Dellums v. Bush: "Article I Section 8, Clause 11 of the Constitution grants to Congress the power to declare war.  To the extent that this unambiguous direction requires construction or explanation, it is provided by the Framers' comments that they felt it would be unwise to entrust the momentous power to involve the nation in a war to the President alone."  There's a lot more to that quote--it's all good stuff.  The President can't just send troops to war.  He has to ask Congress first. And Bush did, and the subsequent debate in Congress honored our nation.

Only that's not what happens now.  This is non-partisan stuff: Bill Clinton didn't really ask for Congressional approval to send troops to Bosnia, and George W. Bush didn't really have Congressional authority to invade Afghanistan.  We've privatized war-making--most people aren't aware of just how many functions that used to be done by soldiers are now done by private contractors--who are not really part of the chain-of-command. 

Rachel Maddow doesn't just make a constitutional argument.  Her book is full of wonderful anecdotes and stories which illustrate the points she's making.  For example, she tells the tale of the Houbara bustard.  It's a bird, a really fast one.  Good eating, too, apparently.  It's the favored prey for the sport of falconing, a sport much favored among Arab royalty.  And it lives in Balochistan, part of Pakistan.  So the United Arab Emirates bought this strip of land, the favored wintering grounds for the bustard, and built an airbase there, so all these Arab princes from the UAE and Saudi Arabia and Qatar could fly in with their pet birds and watch the falcons hunt. Bustards are fast and elusive and tough--it makes for good sport.

So Shamsi air base, in Balochistan, is now where the CIA launches its drones from.  When we killed Bin Laden, the Pakistanis wanted all US forces out of their country.  But we're still there, in Shamsi, because it doesn't belong to Pakistan anymore.  We leased it from the UAE.  All thanks to the Houbara bustard.  Great story, right?

Okay, so then, in her last chapter, Rachel Maddow decides to scare the wee out of us.  She talks about nukes. 

Before reading her book, I assumed that all the US missile silos and war heads aboard subs and all the other nuclear weapons built during the Cold war, all those deadly bombs, that they were all safe.  That fail-safe programs made an accidental launch impossible, that we had vigilant army guys watching those bunkers, that at least, the possibility of nuclear war had ended with the end of the Cold War.  Turns out, not so much.  We still have missiles in silos, in North Dakota mostly, and the job of guarding them sucks so badly it's hard to find anyone to do it.  Nuclear warheads are degrading, and we have no idea what kinds of bizarre chemistry experiments from hell are frothing and brewing down there.  And all those missiles are aimed at the Soviet Union, which no longer exists. 

Why?  What possible positive function do nuclear weapons serve nowadays?  During the Cold War, the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD, my favorite acronym ever) meant they had some deterrent value.  Not any more.  Plus, as my wife is fond of pointing out, we have some nerve telling Iran and North Korea they can't develop nuclear weapons. Not while we cling to our arsenal.

President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, a much deserved one, because without a lot of fanfare, he's done a lot to promote disarmament.  He negotiated a START treaty with Russia, reducing nuclear stockpiles substantially. He got a lot of countries to get rid of their Eisenhower-era arsenals. So is this maybe an issue liberals and conservatives can agree on?  How about maybe we decide that's a place where we can cut spending?  How about we just get rid of them?  All of them, forever. 

As Maddow points out, the US now spends more money on defense than every other country in the world combined.  As she also points out, our Constitution is pretty clear about what war is and means and who gets to declare it.  The drone program, which has such a faux purity to it, so surgically clean, so deadly and effective without needing to put our soldiers in harm's way, is also of extremely dubious constitutionality and legality.  We need to have, at least, a debate about these questions.  That debate isn't really happening.  So Rachel Maddow decided to start one.  While she's at it, she wrote a readable, fascinating, funny, scary book.  Boy oh boy do I recommend it.  

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