Maddow describes "drift" in first-time radio event

MANCHESTER - The Founding Fathers would not be pleased.

At least two disturbing trends are underway in U. S. national security policy, argues Rachel Maddow, a television personality with MSNBC and now an author of a new book that outlines a drift away from our historic constitutional anchors.

In "Drift - The Unmooring of American military power," Maddow contends that since the early 1980s, at least, U.S. national security issues that have involved the use of the U.S. armed forces have undergone a slow but steady erosion away from the legislative branch - the U.S. Congress - and towards the executive branch and the Presidency. But that is not what the writers of the Constitution had in mind when they hammered out the historic document in 1787. Precisely to avoid the scenario of a too-powerful executive that behaved more like the kings and monarchs that Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and the other framers of the historic document were familiar with and feared, the power to make war was vested in the often balky and inefficient legislature. As a result, momentous decisions of war and peace would involve the country as a whole, not just the military and not just a President who thought he understood the situation better than those in Congress.

Parallel to, and related to that, is the drift of the military out of the mainstream of regular civilian life. The recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan affected those who didn't have a relative or family member overseas in harm's way remarkably little. Those not asked to serve didn't even see their tax bill jump because it. And within the military itself, other disturbing trends - like the outsourcing of tasks formerly handled by members of the armed forces to military contractors, and the evolution of the Central Intelligence Agency into an almost indistinguishable branch of the military but one much more tightly cloaked in secrecy - are proceeding apace, Maddow said.

Maddow made these and other points before a sold-out audience of more than 700 people at the gymnasium at the Manchester Elementary Middle School on Saturday, March 31, in a taped discussion with Joe Donahue, a radio interviewer and personality with the Capital district public radio station WAMC. The program will be aired on April 10.

The discussion was the first of a new series of live public interviews that the Northshire Bookstore and WAMC are collaborating on. The bookstore sponsored Maddow's appearance in Manchester.

"Our national security policy isn't much related to its stated justifications anymore," Maddow writes in "Drift." "To whatever extent we do argue and debate what defense and intelligence policy ought to be, that debate - our political process - doesn't actually determine what we do. We're not directing that policy anymore; it just follows its own course. Which means we've effectively lost control of a big part of who we are as a country." Maddow traces the evolution of the drift away from active Congressional oversight to the aftermath of the Vietnam War. In 1973, in the wake of unsatisfactory wind-down and outcome of the nation's involvement in Vietnam, Congress passed a joint resolution intended to sharply limit the ability of the executive branch to commit U.S. forces overseas without an explicit grant of authority from Congress.The War Powers Resolution required the President to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action and prohibited them from remaining more than 60 days in the absence of Congressional authorization or a declaration of war.

But within a decade, this high point of Congressional oversight during modern times began to be eroded, a process that began with the U.S. invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada, which U.S. officials feared was on the cusp of being turned into a soviet-Cuban base for trouble making in the region, and accelerated mightily during the Iran-Contra affair of 1985-6,. That episode involved then-President Ronald Reagan in a scheme to fund opponents to the Sandinista regime of Nicaragua, known as the "Contras," with proceeds from arms sales to - of all places - Iran, which was embroiled in a destructive conflict with neighboring Iraq. In the end, when the illegal and ultra-secret operation was exposed, heads rolled, but not the President's, and a Congressional follow up was relatively toothless, Maddow asserts in her book.

From there it was all downhill - from the 1991 Gulf War through our involvement in protecting Bosnians from ethnic-cleansing at the hands of Serbians, through the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It was not a conspiracy hatched up behind closed doors at the White House, but rather a slow drip-drip where the power brokers of the executive out-muscled the Congress, she said.

Is it too late reverse this?

No, it's not said Maddow, both in her book and during the event on Saturday. But it will take some will power on the part of Congress to restore the balance the Founders intended, and no President, regardless of political party or governing philosophy, can be expected to surrender accumulated executive power easily, she said.

But in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, the two longest-running wars in U.S. history, there may be a moment when this opportunity presents itself, Maddow said on Saturday.

"I do think we can get back to the original course," she said. "I do feel there is broad-based bipartisan discomfort with who were are, in terms of us and these wars. This discomfort may be enough to trigger a change back."


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