Rachel Maddow's new book, "Drift: The Unmooring Of The American Military," has been a passion project for the MSNBC host for years. Maddow's main contention is that, since the Vietnam War, American national security policy has become more secretive, undemocratic
and centralized in the hands of the president, and that the result has been a near-permanent state of war. Maddow spoke to The Huffington Post about her book on Friday.
Why did you decide to focus on this particular topic?
I didn’t want to generically write a book and then look for a topic. I don’t enjoy the process of writing. It does not make me happy. But what I did have is a feeling that there was something that I wanted to get off my chest. There was a story that I wanted to tell; there was sort of evidence that I wanted to lay out for something that I thought was going on in the country that I could only really tell in a long-form way.
The U.S. has been invading countries all over the place for a very long time, long before the main thrust of your story kicks off. What did you feel was really different about the latter half of the twentieth century?
We have not been a pacifist country. But we’ve never been involved in a war as long as the Afghanistan war. And we certainly haven’t tried to do anything as long as Afghanistan while simultaneously also fighting another big eight-and-a-half year long land war. The pace has increased over my lifetime. But more important, I think, is the division between what we are doing with our military and the civilian sense of whether or not we are at war. And that is the thing that bothers me the most. War has been essentially normalized as an American day-to-day sense of being.
The biggest chunk of the book is about Ronald Reagan. Why did you feel he was so important?
A lot of people have been surprised that there isn’t more not only on George W. Bush but also on Obama. The book really mostly focuses on the transformation that we went through between the Vietnam War and 9/11. That is the period during which I feel like we made a lot of big, structural changes in the way we handle the politics of national security without much debating those changes. And the Reagan changes were among the most significant and the least explored. The Iran-Contra scandal is thought of being a scandal about a cabal of zealots gone slightly rogue that maybe Reagan knew something about. I think what’s really important about Iran-Contra is that, in trying to save Reagan’s neck, his administration came up with this very radical notion of executive power.
Why hasn’t there been more public outcry?
I do actually think there is public frustration. I think that one of the places where the left and right and non-aligned citizens among us find agreement is this idea that, ‘Hey, the Constitution says Congress has the power to declare war. How come presidents get to do this alone? We’re not supposed to have a king. I think it’s part of what explains what the Beltway sees as the inexplicable appeal of Ron Paul, particularly to younger voters.
You also talk about how the privatization of war has aided both Congress and the executive branch.
I don’t think it came from a nefarious place, but it expanded in such a way to the point where our forward-deployed forces are bolstered by the ranks of people who are working for private companies. We have obscured the cost of what we have to pay to get those services. We have obscured the lines of authority for who’s responsible for their actions, especially when they act poorly or illegally, and it’s also really decreased the sense of the cost of war, because when those people are killed or hurt, those companies are under no obligation to disclose that. That makes wars harder to end.
It also lets us ostensibly not be in some place, when in reality we’re all over the place.
Each successive administration has made all of these little accommodations that let the president do more in the national security arena without getting political permission, without having to make the case for it, without having to make the case to Congress, without having to face the public that may disagree with it. They’ve come up with ways to do more and more stuff unilaterally to the point where our national security policy isn’t much under democratic control anymore.
What do you make of President Obama’s conduct in this area?
I think President Obama has been very happy to essentially maintain the radically expanded presidential powers that he inherited from previous administrations. He doesn’t talk about it in that way, but that is how he has behaved. I am heartened by the fact that he's sought more legal explanation for some of the national security policies that he's taken, but in general he's continued the trajectory he inherited.
You write in the book about how after people are killed in CIA drone strikes that the Obama administration refuses to acknowledge, they act as if it happened by magic.
The Central Intelligence Agency should not be a branch of the military. To take the operational sliver of the CIA’s mission and to use that as an excuse to turn the CIA into a branch of the military that does not report to the Armed Services Committee and that has deniability in terms of American policymakers is something that we ought to debate. I think it’s a bad move, and that is something that I think can be rolled back and ought to be.
How do you think it can be rolled back? You paint a sort of grim picture in the book.
I think it can be a grim subject, but I don’t think it’s a grim picture. For me I think it’s heartening that these things that seem so wrong about the way we handle national security issues right now actually came from very specific decisions made not that long ago by people who were acting for rational political goals. They were wrong decisions, but they were just decisions made by people in power. These things can all be rolled back.
What’s the craziest thing that you came upon while you were doing the writing?
I will say that the screen saver on my desktop of the computer on which I wrote the book is a snapshot from the Reagan library of him in a bathrobe in pajamas in one of the cottages at the Augusta National Golf Course talking about the invasion of Grenada, because he didn’t want to let anybody know we were going to invade Grenada and so he still went on his golf weekend. That picture of Reagan in his bathrobe and jammies is indelible.
Note: the interview has been condensed and edited.