The Road to War examines how presidential commitments can lead to the use of American military force—and to war. Marvin Kalb* notes that since World War II, "presidents have relied more on commitments, public and private, than they have on declarations of war, even though the U.S. Constitution declares rather unambiguously that Congress has the responsibility to 'declare war.'" Kalb's insights are directly relevant to the developing situation in Syria. As he writes:
*Recruited by Edward R. Murrow to join CBS News, Marvin Kalb went on to a distinguished three-decade career with CBS, and then NBC News.
In a conversation on the August 2, 2013 NPR Morning Edition program, Kalb discusses a moment from The Road to War which recounts a private conversation between John F. Kennedy and President Dwight D. Eisenhower on the eve of Kennedy's inauguration—and how that conversation in turn led to President Lyndon B. Johnson's determination to commit the U.S. to the Vietnam War.
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Over the years, presidential commitments have come in different shapes and sizes, suggesting honor and integrity, strength and determination, the word of a president backed by the military power of the United States. No trifling matter, in diplomatic affairs. And yet . . .
Some commitments, such as America’s to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, have been successful and durable, in part because they have been based on solemn treaties ratified by Congress. Another example is America’s commitment to South Korea, also based on a mutual defense treaty, supported by the presence of 28,500 American troops armed with nuclear weapons until December 1991.
South Vietnam represented a very different challenge. It was war by presidential commitment, the United States sliding mindlessly, one administration after another, into a guerrilla war in Indochina, which cost more than 58,000 American lives. Few in Congress or the media questioned the war’s provenance or legitimacy, until it was too late.
Finally, in this book, which focuses on American commitments to South Korea, South Vietnam, and Israel, the one to Israel is perhaps the most fascinating. Here we have an unusually close relationship, culturally, religiously, politically in alignment, more or less, yet one without any basis in a formal treaty linking the interests of one nation to the other. It is based primarily on private presidential letters to Israeli prime ministers, rich with American promises and pledges to Israeli security. Over the years many of the promises have been honored, but some were betrayed, leaving feelings of anxiety among Israeli leaders about the ultimate reliability of an American commitment.
No doubt, presidential commitments are seen as serious, almost sacred, promises to act made by a chief executive on behalf of his administration. And other nations may view these commitments as binding nation-to-nation promises that succeeding administrations will honor, too. But there is a problem. Will they?
In 1982, for example, President Ronald Reagan pledged America’s “iron- clad commitment to the defense of Israel.” The commitment made sense to Reagan at the time, and it has been echoed by one president after another ever since. But does Reagan’s pledge have the same resonance now that it did then? Does it mean that if Israel feels it must bomb Iran to stop its nuclear program that America must join in the attack? Much has to do with trust between leaders and countries. Do Israeli leaders trust President Barack Obama as much as they did Bill Clinton and George W. Bush? These are questions that cut to the heart—and viability—of a presidential commitment.
Words have consequence. Spoken by a president, they can often become American policy, with or without congressional approval. When a president “commits” the United States to a controversial course of action, he may be setting the nation on the road to war or on a road to reconciliation. In matters of national security, his powers have become awesome—his word decisive. Who decides when we go to war? The president decides. As former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski told me, it “all depends” on the president. “It’s his call.” Likewise, it is his decision when and whether, and under what conditions, to support a friendly nation.
A president, such as Barack Obama, for example, pledges that the United States has “an ironclad commitment” to Israel’s security—meaning, one would imagine, that if Israel were attacked, the United States would come to Israel’s defense. Is there anything more to this commitment than a presidential promise? Obviously, yes. Israel enjoys broad-based support from Congress and the American people. For the most part, both nations share common values and common aims. But the president is the key to determining the flow and texture of this delicate relationship.
A question often asked by political leaders in Israel is whether Obama will live up to his word. Will his commitment be honored or betrayed by him or by a successor? The answer to this question can mean war or peace. Might it not be better for both nations to negotiate a formal defense treaty—and, in this way, try to reduce or even eliminate areas of doubt in their relationship? Those who question the value or relevance of a U.S.-Israeli defense treaty point out that in recent years Obama has tried to organize Israeli-Palestinian peace talks only to fail abysmally because of Palestinian objections to Israeli settlements and Israeli insistence on building such settlements in the name of security. How would a treaty resolve these problems, they ask? Indeed, even the effort to negotiate a defense treaty would likely kick up fresh tumult and anxiety among Arab states, which are apt to see a U.S. treaty with Israel as proof that the United States can no longer be counted on as an impartial negotiator.
Another question: Obama has warned, more than once: “Let there be no doubt—America is determined to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.” Though the world has heard this warning, there are still many, especially in the Middle East, who question whether Obama would really use American military power to stop Iran from “getting nuclear weapons,” however that phrase might be defined. It is said in Washington and Jerusalem that never before have Israel and the United States been in closer alignment on stopping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. True, and yet not quite true. In the final analysis, for reasons both political and military, Israel may, on its own, strike Iran. Would it then expect American diplomatic and military support? Obama has strongly implied yes. But, without a mutual defense treaty, there may always be a question about the durability and reliability of a presidential commitment.
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The Road to War is available in both hardcover and eBook formats:
Praise for The Road to War:
“Every road to war is ultimately also a tragedy. Kalb’s concluding chapter, however, offers a timely and important ray of hope: a defense treaty between the U.S. and Israel in the context of a fair peace settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians might avoid not just one but even two wars. President Obama should read this chapter.”
—Zbigniew Brzezinski, former U.S. national security adviser
“Marvin Kalb has written a fine book that should be required reading for everyone who wants to be president because it underlines what every president seems not to know in the beginning—that it is much easier to get into war than to get out of it. Terrific insight, carefully researched and clearly written.”
—Bob Schieffer, CBS News
“Kalb raises important questions about the unchecked power of presidents to take the nation to war. His provocative proposal for a U.S.-Israeli defense treaty will certainly add to the debate about the future of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East.”
—Graham Allison, Harvard University
Marvin Kalb speaks at Politics and Prose about The Road to War