How the American Military went off course

Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power

Rachel Maddow

Crown Publishing,  275 pages, $25

Reviewed by Barry Cooper

It has been more than a decade since the attack by al-Qaeda on 11 September 2001. For many Canadians and Americans, the most significant and lasting effect has been the hassle it now takes to board an aircraft. It, however, also led to Canadian troops deploying to Afghanistan; the first time in over a generation Canada has been engaged in sustained combat. There was, for example, combat during the “peace-keeping” activity in the Balkans during the 1990s, but, unlike Afghanistan, it was scarcely acknowledged by the government of the day. Equally unusual today, there exists an engaging controversy of some public significance concerning the acquisition of a piece of military equipment, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Canada’s current government has also acknowledged that they only have one ally who counts: The United States. This is the context within which I would like to consider a remarkable book Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, by American journalist, MSNBC television host with an Oxford PhD, Rachel Maddow.

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After more than a decade of US spending in Afghanistan—around $5 billion a month—it is still one of the poorest countries in the world. Maddow asks what is the most visible effect of this spending and answers by pointing to a new neighbourhood, Wazir Akbar Khan, in the capital, Kabul. Named for the Afghan warlord who threw the Brits out in 1842, Wazir Akbar Khan is a collection of “rococo narco-chic McMansions… with giant sculptures of eagles on their roofs and stoned guards lounging in the sidewalks, wearing bandoliers and plastic boots.” No one, Maddow said, ever made a case that this was an appropriate response to 9/11, “but that is what we built.” Whatever “we,” which includes America, Canada, NATO, the West, aimed at, that is what we got. That’s not all we got for $5 billion a month (pro-rated at around 5% for Canadian taxpayers) but we did get it, along with some amazingly corrupt governments.

One of the unsurprising discoveries of the 9/11 Commission (known officially as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States) was that “intelligence failure” allowed al-Qaeda to succeed in such a spectacular fashion. The Commission recommended intelligence sharing, the result of which has grown into a million-person cadre of professionals who look keenly at the world, including the domestic American population. One example, Liberty Crossing, exists just outside Washington and consists of nearly a million square feet of office space, costing around $75 billion a year to house the American National Counterterrorism Center. The Center produces around 50,000 reports a year—one dealt with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who secreted a bomb in his underpants and nearly blew up Northwest Flight 253 over southern Ontario on Christmas day, 2009. The report surfaced after Abdulmutallab had hopped on the plane. We all dodged a bullet on that one, especially the citizens living between London and Windsor.

Here Maddow raised a simple question that applies to Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, and scores of other countries: if no one knows whether these expensive, complex, bureaucratic, state-of-the-art national-security systems are making us safer, how and why did we build them? Why do we maintain them? The answer was discovered by Edward Gibbon in his account of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and applies here as well: the unlimited growth of bureaucracy and the faith that proper organization can save the world. This is why, Gibbon pointed out, that the word “Byzantine” is not a term of praise.

Maddow is not a pacifist; she knows that national security matters. As Churchill said, every country has an army; either its own or somebody else’s. Her question is: what is the relationship between actual security (or its absence) and the justification of it? In Canada, has anyone ever asked: is the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) worth it? And if so, how does one know? Those questions, she said, are expressions of a “small c” conservative attitude and a desire to return to America’s constitutional roots.

Maddow is particularly admiring of a statement of Thomas Jefferson, written in 1792: “one of my favorite ideas, is never to keep an unnecessary soldier.” For Maddow, this is America at its best because, among other reasons, it realistically indicates that some soldiers are necessary. When he became president in 1801 Jefferson acted on this favourite idea; it is why he left the defence of the new country largely to the militias controlled by the states. The story of how America changed from Jefferson’s day to embrace Liberty Crossing and the production of the Wazir Akbar Khan neighbourhood is told with wit and accuracy.

To sketch only developments undertaken over the last generation or so, Maddow argued that President Lyndon Johnson tried to fight the Vietnam War with the armed forces but not with the country. This is why he refused to call up the successors to Jefferson’s militias, the National Guard and the Reserves.

Indeed, during the Vietnam War, joining the Guard and the Reserves was a way to ensure you didn’t end up in Southeast Asia. Just ask George W. Bush. Mobilizing the country by way of the Guard and Reserves might not have affected the outcome of the war, but not mobilizing them did produce a deep divide between military and civilians.

The response of the American military was the “Abrams Doctrine,” named after the US Army Chief of Staff who restructured the army to ensure that it was much more difficult to go to war without mobilizing the Guard and Reserves; mobilization now involves disrupting the lives of “weekend warriors” who were, in reality, civilians. With the end of the Vietnam War and the end of the draft, the Americans developed a professional, volunteer army. At the same time, starting with President Ronald Reagan’s first administration, the Americans elected an “energetic executive,” claiming considerable independence from Congress in the conduct of foreign and military policy.

Here you can probably guess where Maddow’s narrative is headed. In Jefferson’s day, it was important for Congress to declare war before the president could send troops off to fight, to occupy, or to liberate. Jefferson aside, most presidents considered this a restriction on their discretionary power. It is. It was deliberately designed by the Constitution to be just that.

President Reagan didn’t like it one bit and was determined to work around it rather than, say, make a case to support the Nicaraguan Contras, or to make an arms deal with the Iranians in exchange for American hostages. That Iran-Contra was both illegal and stupid, Maddow argues; it mattered less that executive discretion was unbalanced by Congressional oversight. After all, Congress might have gone along with the president.

Things changed slightly with the first Gulf war (1991) because Congress actually did vote to support President George H.W. Bush, though Bush maintained that their support was not needed. Colin Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and a strong supporter of the results of the Abrams Doctrine, insisted that the Reserves be mobilized or Saddam Hussein would stay in Kuwait. In short, the Abrams Doctrine seemed to have worked.

Then came Bill Clinton who famously did not get along with the Pentagon. His contribution to the garrison state and the overcoming of the US Constitution was to accelerate civilian out-sourcing of military activities, from logistics, to providing intelligence, to operating complex electronic equipment aboard naval fighting ships. This was another work-around: the Abrams Doctrine made it difficult to make war without involving civilians, so, pace Clinton, why not just hire them directly and quietly? That enabled Halliburton to help out and help its own bottom line. Eventually Canada followed suit and Tim Hortons showed up at Kandahar Air Field.

A second initiative began after 9/11 but came into its own in the following decade: the extensive use of special operations forces, CIA personnel, and more recently Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), some of which are flown by civilian contractors. The secrecy surrounding all three types of “operators” ensures not just that there was and is little or no Congressional—which is to say political—oversight, but that there is no oversight at all, and thus no political pushback.

Canadians are by no means exempt from having a secret military. It would take a remarkable act of faith to think that somewhere, somebody is keeping an eye on what our special operations people in our super-secretive Joint Task Force Two  (JTF-2) are up to. Is Peter McKay doing his job? How can we tell? Now that the office of the CSIS Inspector General has been abolished, does the remaining oversight organ, the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), really fulfill its oversight duty when CSIS claims it can roam around foreign parts defending Canada by collecting “security intelligence”? To state the obvious: most normal people would call that collecting foreign, not security intelligence, also known as spying.

A final work-around of the Abrams Doctrine, which Canadian governments have followed as well, is to postpone paying for war. Let the kids pay. That’s what deficits are for.

Maddow’s account of the growth of the practically invisible American national security state and the faint echoes of similar developments here are not as dire as they may seem. There are ways of fixing things in accord with her “small ‘c’ conservative constitutionalism.” She helpfully provides a to-do list. In this country as well, a step in the right direction was taken with the debate over the F-35.

Just so there is no misunderstanding, I think that the F-35 jet fighter is the best option around precisely because the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces say so. It can defend Canadian sovereignty in the North; it is both a first strike aircraft and an interceptor; it is stealthy. There was a lot of criticism in the media over the non-competitiveness of the contract process. Apparently it violated the Government Contracts Regulations, which was said to have aroused the deep displeasure of the Auditor General. However, in one section of the report, he said that National Defence “took the appropriate steps in managing Canada’s participation in the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Program.”

Moreover, there was a competition in the United States for the original “fifth generation” Joint Strike Fighter between the Boeing X-32 and the Macdonald Douglas X-35. Macdonald Douglas won. If we are to acquire this piece of kit, they alone are the people who can supply it. There are also provisions for sole-sourcing equipment—such as instances when only one contractor can supply the equipment. The government and Department of National Defence did not make that argument in a timely way, though eventually they stated the obvious.

What makes the Canadian debate over the F-35 so interesting is that, next time there is a major weapons acquisition—such as frigate replacement—we should expect a serious debate. If so, Canadians will have learned a lesson Maddow wants to impart: Waging war should be difficult and being capable of waging war should be expensive. At least the F-35 debate seems aware of the second question.

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