Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Is War Too Easy?

I haven't read Rachel Maddow's book -- a book by a TV talk host? Seemed unlikely to be worth anyone's time. After all, while I think Maddow is smart enough, I can't manage to watch her show...it's all repetition and partisanship. Don't get me wrong; I like partisanship in principle, and in practice. It just usually doesn't make for very entertaining TV, and seems even less likely to make for a worthwhile book.

But apparently I was totally wrong. Kevin Drum makes the case for the book today, and it sounds like Maddow really has done something impressive. The book is about how easy it's become for the US to go to war and stay at war, and Maddow suggests reforms -- dial back on contractors, raise taxes when a war starts -- to do something about it.

Before I start: is it actually true that "war" has become too easy? I'm not sure about that. US-sponsored interventions of one form or another are hardly unusual, even before Maddow's apparent jumping off point in the Reagan Administration. Perhaps the idea is that there was a golden age of sorts after Vietnam, but if so it lasted less than a decade. I'm not really sure it's become easier to deploy troops for controversial missions or to begin interventions in other nations. Maybe, but I'm not sure.

Taking it as a problem, however (which it might be even if it hasn't increased), I think there are a few bits to this. For example, I'm not one who believes that formal declarations of war are important. The kinds of resolutions that George H.W. Bush got for the Gulf War and George W. Bush got for Afghanistan and Iraq were perfectly fine in my book.

Then there are things which strike me as very difficult to solve indeed. Drones, for example. Wars become unpopular because people really don't like their lives disrupted and casualties; if military technology makes it a lot easier to conduct war without those problems, it certainly could change the long-term balance of public opinion, removing the main domestic check against war. I suspect there's also some of this that has to do with the US being very large and very rich; even if it weren't for economic and cultural stratification, it strikes me as likely that the nation can support long-term small wars with little or no effect on most people. Again, take that away, and jingoism is likely to be the most likely effect on public opinion.

However: I definitely agree with Drum that the big institutional problem is very simple: Congress. Instead of aggressively competing for influence, Congress too often just ducks. That happens when they duck an initial resolution (blame Congress, and not Barack Obama, for the lack of a Libya resolution). It happens when they don't do real investigations into executive branch, presidential, and contractor actions. It certainly happens when they allow the CIA and other executive branch agencies free rein.

Unfortunately, I'm not really sure what the solution is. In general, I'm in favor of finding more incentives for Members of Congress to take meaningful action. There's plenty of room in a healthy Congress for party hacks who do little but vote the "right" way and deliver boilerplate rhetoric, but the real strength of Congress is that at it's best it empowers any of the 535 Members, and especially all 100 Senators and all House Committee and Subcommittee Chairs. For example, when Drum says that "The CIA and JSOC have become largely unaccountable branches of the military," that's not quite right. They are accountable -- if Congress would just bother to hold them accountable. Of course bureaucracies are going to try to insulate themselves from control; it's up to elected officials to prevent that from happening.

(Granted, it's not only Congress. Presidents, too, have to fight to influence executive branch agencies, certainly including those on the security side. I don't know enough to be able to say how Obama is doing at this, but neither George W. Bush nor Bill Clinton, in my view, were very effective at it).

Actually, let me end with that point before this gets too long: I'd worry a whole lot more about how to get Congress and the president to be more active participants than I would about an overly powerful presidency.

15 comments:

  1. I do think that their has been a change in since the early 90's in terms of seeing war as a solution to our political problems and a great way to change the domestic policy of foreign countries and thus solve our difficult foreign policy problems. Summed up by Tom Friedman in his infamous "suck on this!" comment. I see this as a big problem and a new development. Indeed, intervention in the 80's was for more focused on Cold War geopolitics than on producing "better" policy outcomes in trouble spots. Bush the Elder was interested in getting rid of Noriega but not in using a military occupation of Panama to turn that nation into a Latin American utopia. He and Snowcroft very famously dismissed the idea of occupying Iraq to change it. Likewise, Reagan's support of death squads and the El Salvadorian military during that country's civil war was far more geared at preventing change-which the Reagan Administration feared would lead to a Central American domino theory scenario-than on fixing El Salvador's problems.

    I haven't read her book either, but I think the positive view of war as a solution to problems rather than an option of last resort is rather new and leads to outcomes like seeing the need for political, social and economic reforms in the Middle East as being best accomplished by invading a country there and occupying it for nine years. This is a new development and is a great danger as it is so seductive as we are much better at defeating enemies in battle than doing things like fixing an electrical grid in a foreign land or foreign development.

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  2. Going off of Drum's summary, I think Maddow's particular point about the role of private contractors is very shrewd. That's something that really only arrived in the 1990s. To the extent that a turning point seem to have occurred in that post-Cold War moment -- which seems to be a key part of Maddow's story beyond some questionable romanticization of the immediate post-Vietnam moment -- the contractor aspect seems like a crucial materialist element to the cultural argument.

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  3. "The kinds of resolutions that George H.W. Bush got for the Gulf War and George W. Bush got for Afghanistan and Iraq were perfectly fine in my book."

    You may be pleased to know that John Marshall agrees with you. If I recall correctly, the Supreme Court said much the same thing in the early 1800s in response to complaints about the Quasi War with France. (Undeclared wars have a much longer history than many folks realize.)

    I would also point out another period of intervention: the Spanish-American War, Pershing's intervention in Mexico (where Woodrow Wilson was going to teach them to elect good men), and numerous occupations in Central America and the Caribbean up to 1933. Of course, in those days occupations were fairly easy. Most Haitians or Nicaraguans were politically disengaged, and an "occupation" could consist of 100 marines hanging out at the embassy and some bureaucrats to seize their customs offices, collect their tariffs, and pay off their debts with the money collected so that evil countries like France didn't occupy them. Still, some of these occupations went on for as long as 15 years.

    The drones, contract personnel (including foreigners), and an abundance of poor people eager to sign up have all contributed to making wars in the most recent era more bearable than the old conscription-laden kind. This potentially tilts the balance back toward politically easy interventions. But there's another major change that no one has mentioned. (Well, frankly, I haven't had time to read Drum, let alone Maddow, so I'm basing that presumptuous comment on one blog posting and two earlier comments.) There's no more Soviet Union. The US (via Radio Free Europe, then run by the CIA) actively encouraged Hungarians to rebel in 1956 and then sat by and watched them get crushed. Why, obviously because to intervene would have meant World War III. So the practical lesson was not to encourage any more suicidal rebellions. I remember attending an APSA meeting in the 1990s, when I used to attend APSA meetings, and someone got up and said, "The Cold War is over, and NATO is still bombing Yugoslavia." I don't know where he had been, but NATO had never bombed anyone until then, ever, because--once again--it would've started World War III. The fact that NATO could bomb Yugoslavia with impunity was precisely the change that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War had brought about. (Obviously, it wasn't the kind of change this guy had anticipated.) This effect was strongest in East Europe, but it wasn't entirely limited to there. The United States never intervened in an active conflict in the Middle East during the Cold War (I say active conflict to let Lebanon, 1958, and to some extent 1982, slip by), and by the way, neither did the Soviet Union (except in Afghanistan, directly on its border, toward the end). When war did break out, as between Israel and Egypt/Syria in 1973, both superpowers did their utmost to make sure it ended quickly. The collapse of the Soviet Union, eliminating the prospect of escalation, was a permissive condition that did a tremendous amount to make wars easier for the United States.

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  4. "blame Congress, and not Barack Obama, for the lack of a Libya resolution"

    Why not blame the President? He should have refused to commit US forces without a resolution (actually, a declaration of war), and then campaigned for it if he thought it was necessary. If congress has surrendered its constitutional responsibilities, then the executive has exceeded its constitutional limits (wouldn't be the first time, of course...).

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  5. Not having read Maddow's book, I find it odd that this discussion seems to omit the ending of conscription. I would guess the vast majority of folks reading this have not served in Iraq/Afghanistan, nor do they know anyone personally who has served, nor even - a key difference from Vietnam - have they ever faced a scintilla of skepticism about why they didn't serve their country in battle.

    There's a famous attribution to Eisenhower, where he explained his desire for green recruits to be the first to land on Omaha Beach. Eisenhower's reasoning was that anyone who had actually faced intense conflict would be too terrified by what was going to occur on the beach that day.

    So - why is war easier? Perhaps in part because we educated softies, who have an outsized influence on policy, have only ever experienced the 'reality' of war in a Call of Duty game.

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  6. Hah, hey, don't go trying to blame Gen X'ers and Millennials with that "Call of Duty" reference! The guys (overwhelmingly guys) in power who set the nation off on foolish/criminal/callous militaristic ventures these last several decades have been people from older cohorts. Many in fact lived through the Vietnam-era, some serving in dangerous combat, some serving but not in a high stakes fashion, and many finding ways to dodge the draft thanks to access to privilege. And I'm sure very very few of them developed any experience over the years playing fun war-related video games.

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    1. And of course most of those responsible for Vietnam were veterans, and JFK was a combat veteran.

      Not to say that the end of the draft isn't important -- surely it is -- but just that it's not always easy to draw causal lines.

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    2. But Vietnam is different, at least insofar as the draft created an expectation that young people (in general) would serve, and those who didn't would need a reason, which must have played some role in the national baggage that followed.

      Still, I agree that these are causal lines I can't easily draw. I didn't serve. Those in my milieu didn't serve. While I can't say how that matters, I'm pretty sure it does and should be part of this discussion. YMMV.

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  7. What happened to my lengthy comment from last night?

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    1. It just appeared. This is really weird.

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    2. Restored! The spam filter got it. Note to all - please let me know if comments disappear. I try to check once a week or so, but I often forget...just restored a whole bunch for the last couple of weeks.

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  8. Let's see a show of hands as to how many think we would have had the Grand Foolish Imperial Adventure in Iraq if Congress had the guts to mandate that it was to be paid for with current receipts from a 15% surtax on EVERY Federal tax item: liquor, gasoline, cigarettes, income taxes, etc. I think Ms. Maddow is correct with her implication that wars of choice on credit are unwise and bad politics. ((Pls recall that Bush/Cheney canned Larry Lindsey for correctly predicting the war's true cost. This is fiscal malfeasance at a very high level; practically treasonous, methinks.))

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    1. Lindsey's prediction was still well short of the true cost.

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  9. PLEASE READ THE BOOK, it is actually quite informative.

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  10. I have this working theory that everthing changed after the redesign of the American military after WW2 and the creation of the Defense Department to replace the Department of War.

    Once you have a peacetime army ready to go you don't need Congressional approval to build up the resources necessary to go to war - which seems to me to be the only reason a declaration of war was ever really necessary. Its nice to have the green light to give it authorization, but when daddy's given you the key to the car, what's to really stop you from giving it a spin?

    I don't think its a coincidence that we haven't seem a declaration of war since the establishment of the Defense Department. Am I wrong to think so?

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