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April 12, 2012 8:05 AM Is War Too Easy?

By Jonathan Bernstein

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.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.
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Comments

  • Lance on April 12, 2012 7:41 PM:

    Really? Comment before you read it?

    Rather a waste of ones and zeros.

    It's not a thick book. Get to work.

  • Elizabeth Stein on April 12, 2012 9:46 PM:

    Oh, I see; you can't be bothered to read her book, because you're an Intellectual with a blog, but you'll write an article about someone else's response? I have to tell you, you would fail any college course I taught, which requires that you start with primary sources, rather than secondary ones (I'll wait while you look up the terms). You don't get to pontificate until you do your homework.

  • TT on April 13, 2012 12:33 AM:

    Is public opinion really "the main domestic check against war"? The war in Iraq became quite unpopular less than year after the initial invasion, yet continued for the remainder of the decade years. The war in Afghanistan became unpopular by the mid-2000s, yet was expanded in 2009-10. Viet Nam became unpopular by early 1967, yet continued for almost another five years before ground forces were (almost) completely withdrawn.

    In my opinion the only way public opinion can become a genuine check against war is if a law or even a Constitutional Amendment is passed requiring a draft and a major tax increase in the event that a president decides to commit ground, naval, and/or air forces of any size to overseas hostilities of any kind for any duration.

  • Below the Beltway on April 13, 2012 6:32 AM:

    I have not read your column. Based on the comments, however, it seems you have not read the book you are writing a review of a review of. In my experience reading reviews of reviews, they are uninformed and useless mental masturbation. Perhaps sometime I will be bothered to read the piece I am talking about, but certainly not before weighing in on it. . .

  • Anonymous on April 13, 2012 10:40 PM:

    I grade undergraduate papers for a living and this is some of the laziest writing I've ever seen.

    What's the matter with you?

  • HMDK on April 13, 2012 11:23 PM:

    "Below the Beltway on April 13, 2012 6:32 AM:

    I have not read your column. Based on the comments, however, it seems you have not read the book you are writing a review of a review of. In my experience reading reviews of reviews, they are uninformed and useless mental masturbation. Perhaps sometime I will be bothered to read the piece I am talking about, but certainly not before weighing in on it. . ."

    PERFECT.
    I'm still laughing.

  • TechGrrl72 on April 14, 2012 7:34 AM:

    DOCTOR Rachel Maddow has a Ph.D and was a Rhodes Scholar. I think her bona fides for having the scholarly background to write a book are pretty strong. She is not your average TV talk show host.

  • George Fleming on April 29, 2012 7:25 AM:

    Bernstein would instantly achieve clarity on the subject if there were a draft with no possibility of deferment, and his number came up. That is all we need to know about why war has become too easy.