How War Came Home to Stay

Janet Maslin in The New York Times:

BOOK-JP-popupA 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. “You can trace it to specific decisions, made for specific, logical reasons.”

More here.