05/16/2012 05:29 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2012

Requiem for Reform?

Not long ago, I finished reading Rachel Maddow's Drift - The Unmooring of American Military Power, a poignant treatise on the creeping militarization not only of American foreign policy but with implications for our whole system of governance. Maddow succeeds in explaining, in a charmingly non-wonkish way, how we got ourselves to our current state of affairs -- the unhealthy distortion of our time-honored yet taken-for-granted civil-military relationship. But where she succeeds in description in the first 248 pages, she falls short on prescription in the remaining three and a half.

This is not to say I disagree with her rather generalized recommendations in those few pages. We should indeed make sure the costs of our martial interventions are clearly seen and felt by all -- pay as you pull the trigger. We should do away with the "secret military" and stop having an intelligence agency (the CIA) direct combat drone missions that should be done by the military. And we should limit war's privatization through contractors, scale back our nuclear arsenal in particular to actual threats, and so on.

Maddow lays out the bipartisan path of a militarization process, through the Cold War and the War on Terror that surpasses Thomas Jefferson's worst nightmare -- a large standing peacetime army and a national security state, embodied in our gargantuan Departments of Defense and Homeland Security that has become "dangerous to the rights of the nation." She does it, however, without the predictable effusiveness of the left-winger she is. Rather, her brilliance is to base it on a reasoned, respectful, and patriotic argument for a "conservative return to our constitutional roots", because, as she explains:

As the national security state has metastasized, decisions to use force have become painless and slick, almost automatic. The disincentives to war deliberately built into our American system of government - particularly the citizen-soldier, and leaving the power to declare war with Congress instead of the president - we've worked around them. We ought to see that constitutional inheritance as a national treasure, yet we've divested ourselves of it without much of a debate.

Re-asserting "the legislature's constitutional prerogatives on war and peace" as a check and balance against the near monopoly of the "imperial presidency" on the use of force is thus her most important recommendation. But she doesn't exactly explain how we can do that, or any of the other things.

That's because, as Maddow points out, the problem is larger than even political life. The Project on National Security Reform -- a transpartisan movement not just to transform a national security apparatus that hasn't had a serious system overhaul since Harry Truman was in office, similarly concluded that "it takes a nation to fix a government." That means two things.

First, any serious transformation of national security cannot happen through one agency or even one branch of government -- although presidential leadership would no doubt have been decisive. That's because, as in the case of health care, there are too many constituencies with a deep stake in the status quo. The inertia of the military-industrial complex and its "iron triangles" between executive agencies, congressional committees, and defense industries compel Congress to maintain programs and buy hardware that even the military does not want.

That's still true despite the current budget crisis. Between DoD, DHS, and their friends on the Hill feeding at the trough, less and less of taxpayer money is actually going towards addressing real national security issues. In other words, despite our massive advantages in national security spending over other countries, we are not getting what we're paying for. Couple that culture of waste with partisan gridlock and you have a predicament intractable inside the Beltway. And yet, the current assumption by many outside the Beltway is that our defense and security dollars are well spent, compared, say, to social welfare programs.

The second is that, as PNSR has argued, you can't fix dysfunction in Washington or its drag on our economic strength and ignore the broken state of national security governance -- because it represents the public sector's single largest and most pervasive functional area. For all its talk about "change," the Obama administration has been aloof to national security reform, because of the immensity of the task, the enduring political capital it demands, and the more visible and electable issues of jobs, the economy, health care, and so on. But that doesn't mean the problem is going away all on its own, which is really Maddow's point as well. As with other large issues such as the public debt, the longer it goes on unresolved the harder it will be and the uglier the options become.

PNSR was led by James R. Locher III, the principal architect of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act that got the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force to work together. In publication after publication, Locher and his team did what Drift did not do. It laid out a well-reasoned path that envisioned a re-balanced concept of national security (diplomacy and development as well as defense), whole-of-nation as well as whole-of-government approaches, and prioritized resource investments emphasizing national strengths, strategic goals, and opportunities, not just threats and vulnerabilities. Emulating the private sector, national security agencies would be flatter, less redundant, leaner, more adaptive, and networked.

The same kind of characteristics we would want in all of our government.

Such reforms would help avoid the disasters and near-disasters of our recent foreign policy and national security history that Maddow well explains. Locher himself pointed out the day after Osama bin Laden was killed that the retail exception is not the wholesale rule, asking his bewildered audience in suburban Connecticut: "How can you secure your children's future with your grandparent's government?"

The tragic irony of the Project on National Security Reform is that is has died of neglect. Although what it singularly championed is needed now more than ever, it could not find sponsorship and a million or so dollars to keep it going until after the next election - a drop in a lobbyist's swimming pool in the World's Richest Capital, inundated with more PAC money than ever before. When knocking on the doors of Congress, the departments, or countless think tanks and foundations, Locher would often be told: "Jim, you're doing the Lord's work; you're just not doing our work." Such was the requiem for this reform.

Like the Project on National Security Reform, Drift, therefore, is unfinished business. Maddow would do well to bring value and completeness to both by picking up where her book leaves off. She could, for example, have Locher on her show to explain to Americans why such an utterly sensible effort failed to see the light of the political day in Washington, or even gain the attention of the media. So could someone like Fareed Zakaria, who only recently pointed out that the rise of our national security state "... has entailed a vast expansion in the government's powers that now touch every aspect of American life, even when seemingly unrelated to terrorism."

When she and others in the media help figure that out, they will have done much to fulfill the promise of Drift and of the Fourth Estate to which they belong. And help turn a requiem into a reconstitution.