Not since Pearl Harbor in 1941 has an American president gone to Congress to request a declaration of war. Nevertheless, since then, one president after another, from Truman to Obama, has ordered American troops into wars all over the world. Why no declarations of war? Why has it become so comparatively easy for a president to commit the nation to war? What is Congress’s responsibility? Where is the press? In The Road to War, esteemed journalist and author Marvin Kalb explores these crucial and timely questions.
Rather than formally declaring war, presidents have justified their war-making powers by citing predecessors’ “commitments,” private and public. Many have been honored, but some have been betrayed. From Vietnam to Israel, presidential commitments have proven to be tricky and dangerous. For example, presidents pledged the United States to the defense of South Vietnam; yet none saw the need for a formal declaration of war, and few in Congress or the media chose to question the war’s provenance or legitimacy until it was too late. In the end, the U.S. lost 58,000 Americans—and the war.
Given the extraordinarily close U.S.-Israeli relationship, based on secret presidential assurances, it is remarkable but true that a number of Israeli leaders feel that at times they have been betrayed by American presidents. Kalb, while explaining the origin of this sense of betrayal, raises a profoundly important question: Isn’t it time for the United States and Israel to negotiate a mutual defense treaty? Wouldn’t such a treaty help facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and provide American reassurance for Israel in the nuclear standoff with Iran?
The word of a president can morph into a national commitment, the functional equivalent of a declaration of war. Therefore, whenever a president “commits” the United States to a policy or course of action, with or increasingly without congressional approval or national debate, it is time to raise the yellow flag--watch out!
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