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]

Jonathan Bernstein

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