It’s been 72 years since an American president requested a declaration of war from Congress. But during that time, American troops have been ordered to fight everywhere from Vietnam to Iraq. We talk with veteran journalist and foreign policy scholar Marvin Kalb about how more recent decisions to go to war were made and what they say about the evolution of executive power in the United States.


  • Marvin Kalb Edward R. Murrow Professor Emeritus, The Kennedy School of Government and The Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, Harvard University; guest scholar in Foreign Policy, Brookings Institution; author "The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed"


  • 13:06:42

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. From Korea to Afghanistan, Desert Storm to Enduring Freedom, U.S. troops have been deployed with thousands killed fighting wars the U.S. never officially waged. At least not in the way the Constitution clearly outlines. Instead of congress holding a vote on the matter, decisions on when to send forces to far corners of the globe to fight communism and terrorism have largely been made by one man, or rather a series of men, presidents. Sometimes handed commitments made by their predecessors. At other times forging their own while largely leaving congress out of the loop.

  • 13:07:38

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to explain how that shift took place and what it has meant and will continue to mean for U.S. foreign policy is Marvin Kalb. He is Edward R. Murrow professor emeritus at Harvard and guest scholar in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. Marvin Kalb's latest book is called "The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed." Marvin, great to see you again. How are you?

  • 13:08:03

    MR. MARVIN KALBI am just great. Thank you very much for having me back.

  • 13:08:06

    NNAMDIThank you for joining us in studio. If you're interested in joining this conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think the U.S. Congress should officially declare war before we deploy troops to aid in conflicts? Why or why not, 800-433-8850? Marvin, despite the number of times we've send troops into combat, America has only issued a formal declaration of war for five conflicts. The last was issued for World War II. How was this process supposed to work?

  • 13:08:40

    KALBWell, it is supposed to work according to the Constitution. The Constitution is very clear on the separation of powers. The president has certain powers, congress has certain powers, the judiciary has certain powers. And that was always called a balance form of government. The congress had specific responsibility. One, when it came to war, to declare war. It was its responsibility. The second responsibility it had was to provide the money, the funding to fight a war.

  • 13:09:15

    KALBNow, since December, 1941 the United States, as every listener knows, has been involved in one war after another. And yet since December of '41 we have never once declared war. We have gone to war on the basis of the decision of the President of the United States. Now, one could argue immediately, come on guy, he is the president. And that's true. But his responsibility was never to declare war. He was the commander in chief. He was the guy responsible for running the military. And he would send people off to fight after congress, representing all of the people, actually gave him authority to do so. But that is not the way it has happened.

  • 13:10:09

    KALBI think that right after world War II, with the beginning of the nuclear age and the fear of getting into a nuclear war, the congress kind of backed off and felt, whoops this is the big leagues. We're not going to do this sort of thing. Let him do it. The other thing was the Cold War where the president was opposite the Soviet leader and the two men were, no question about it, the most important people in the world. So they didn't want to start a war that might lead to a nuclear confrontation, though we had something close to that in the Cuban missile crisis. So the president was simply left there.

  • 13:10:54

    KALBThe point, Kojo, that I'm trying to make, perhaps awkwardly...

  • 13:10:58

    NNAMDIOh, no.

  • 13:10:59 that it wasn't the president who consciously decided, I want all of this power. It was the congress abdicating its responsibility to do certain fundamental things about sending young people off to fight a war.

  • 13:11:16

    NNAMDIYou mentioned the Cold War being the first that allowed the president to act unilaterally. And now the war on terror, I guess, or what's called the war on terror, has made it easier for the president also to act unilaterally. How so?

  • 13:11:31

    KALBHow so because of the same principle, that you didn't want to get into something so large that it would require a declaration of war. I think we have to almost define what we're talking about when we say a declaration.

  • 13:11:45

    NNAMDIYeah, because there was the Iraq war resolution.

  • 13:11:50

    KALBThere was a resolution and an authorization. There was the talking Gulf resolution during the Vietnam War. There were times when the congress would in effect -- and I don't mean to belittle any of this -- sort of pat the president on the back and say, here you go, boy. This is your job. You run the world, we'll provide the money if we think it's a good idea. And most of the time they do.

  • 13:12:19

    KALBThe congress simply backed off. The president assumed that after 9/11 especially that if the bad guys could attack us here on our home turf, that gives me, president, even more authority to send troops abroad. And the congress never once stopped him from doing that, even if many members of the congress had reservation because no member of the congress wants to be accused of not supporting the boys and girls in war.

  • 13:12:53

    NNAMDIMarvin Kalb's latest books is called "The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed." If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your call. But, as usual, Marvin's remarks are causing all kinds of thoughts in my head. So allow me to get a few questions in at first. One of the things I found fascinating about how you described in this book is how this process really started under President Truman with commitments. Talk about how these commitments came about to the French.

  • 13:13:21

    KALBWell, it started with our early entry into the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War, as I hope many of your listeners will remember, was a terribly long war during which time we lost 58,000 good people in South Vietnam. Over 500,000 troops were sent there during the height of the war in 1968 and '70. And Harry Truman really was interested in one thing when he came into power. And that was to do what essentially Franklin Roosevelt would have done.

  • 13:14:01

    KALBAnd the idea there was that the threat was very clearly coming from Moscow, from advancing communism. Soviet Red Army troops were moving across borders going into Poland, going into what became East Germany, going into Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia. And Truman's responsibility then was to say, wait a minute, guy, this is far enough. So he began with the Truman Doctrine and other ways of trying to hold off the communist advance.

  • 13:14:34

    KALBNow, the French were key to what it is that we were doing at that time. And the French people were beginning to move, in Truman's mind, dangerously close to adopting a socialist and possibly communist form of government. So the French nostalgically wanted to recreate their empire in Southeast Asia. Truman didn't want them to do that. Roosevelt was totally against it, however we wanted France in the fight against Russia in Europe. So if the French wanted to be colonialists in Southeast Asia, we would help them And that began the process of presidential commitment.

  • 13:15:23

    NNAMDIHelping France with this little problem in Indochina.

  • 13:15:26

    KALBPrecisely. And Truman would make the first commitment, which was -- I don't have the figure in mind -- $150 million in military aid. The next year was 250, then 450. And by the time Truman left in 1953, we already had advisors in the field. Not many, but they began to show up And we began to be supportive of what became South Vietnam. South Vietnam never existed until the Geneva Conference in 1954.

  • 13:16:05

    KALBThe conference meets, the big boys decide that Vietnam is going to be split. The North goes communist, the South goes how? And Eisenhower jumps in and says, it is going to be democratic. It's going to be noncommunist and we are going to support that process. Eisenhower's commitment.

  • 13:16:31

    NNAMDIWhile the French say, bye-bye.

  • 13:16:33

    KALBThe French said bye-bye.

  • 13:16:35

    NNAMDIWe're out of here.

  • 13:16:35

    KALBThey lost at Dien Bien Phu -- the great Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Then you're absolutely right. Within six months they were totally gone and who's left? The United States of America.

  • 13:16:49

    NNAMDIBecause of this presidential commitment.

  • 13:16:51

    KALBBecause of these commitments one president after another. And, Kojo, toward the -- Eisenhower's gotten a free pass on Vietnam that he shouldn't have. Eisenhower, in 1959, really made it very clear in a speech he delivered at Gettysburg College. It's fascinating. He said, more or less these are his words, the continued existence of a noncommunist, independent, democratic South Vietnam is in the direct national interest of the United States. Well, when the great hero of World War II says that, what is Kennedy next in line, Johnson next in line, going to do? They then picked up the commitment and they live it out in rather bloody fashion.

  • 13:17:46

    NNAMDIYou have explained how it would be that members of congress when confronted with these very large responsibilities, whether we're talking about a Cold War or a war on terror, prefer to let the president make that kind of decision. But given the state of congress today and the accelerated pace of decision-making that these kinds of decisions require when we're faced with an attack or the threat of one, like we saw last week with so many of our U.S. Embassies closing because of the threat of an attack, is having leaving or leaving this up to the president necessarily a bad thing?

  • 13:18:26

    KALBNot necessarily. No, but it's very comfortable for congress, at a certain point in this process, in this decision-making process, to pull back. Because at this particular time you're putting it in the current context. The current Congress of the United States is interested in issues and foreign affairs like Benghazi where Republicans can really -- I think Republicans did this -- where Republicans made a big deal about the American responsibility, the loss of an ambassador, tragic though that -- there's no question about that. But responsibility here, the Republican's say, rests entirely with the president.

  • 13:19:11

    KALBAccording to the evidence that we have, that's not quite accurate but you could say the president is responsible for everything. So why not make him responsible for war? My point is simply, because war is so costly, powerful, demanding it should not be the responsibility of just one person. It should be -- since Americans are going to have to fight in these wars, it should be for their representatives to be able to argue the case.

  • 13:19:46

    KALBI'm not saying that you have to have a declaration of war when the U.S. goes, for example, into Libya a couple of years ago, perhaps go into Syria. I'm only saying please at a minimum have the representatives of the American people participate in a war decision. It should not be left just to the president.

  • 13:20:10

    NNAMDIIt would appear that if on the one hand members of the United States Congress for domestic political reasons feel that pointing to a situation like Benghazi is important. But on the broader decisions, again maybe for domestic political reasons as in reelection, avoid dealing with the major issues of war that confronts our country. Some, it can be argued, that they're abrogating their fundamental responsibility to the American people.

  • 13:20:42

    KALBKojo, I think that is absolutely the case. I think that is exactly what the Congress of the United States is doing and has been doing for the last couple of decades. Look, I'm old enough to remember when I was covering in the 1960s, Senator Fulbright who was then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And we were getting in really deep into Vietnam. In early 1966, Senator Fulbright had a series of hearings...

  • 13:21:10

    NNAMDILet's talk about that.

  • 13:21:12 which he discussed our relationship with China, then our relationship with Vietnam, and in effect brought the top leaders of the U.S. government to his committee, the top academic experts, the journalists from the field. He brought them all in and we had a national discussion about what we could do or shouldn't do in Vietnam.

  • 13:21:35

    NNAMDIAnd to show how influential that discussion was, when that discussion started, support for the war, it's my understanding, was over 60 percent.

  • 13:21:43

    KALBSupport for the war was a little less than that, but after one month it had dropped to 48 percent. It had a powerful impact. One could also argue that Lyndon Johnson, who was once a Senator and once dealt with Senator Fulbright, was so furious with Fulbright that when these committee hearings were being held, Johnson made a deliberate decision not to listen. The heck with what Fulbright is doing. I'm going to do what I want to do because I am president. And as Lyndon Johnson said pathetically, I will never, I will never be the first president to lose a war.

  • 13:22:26

    KALBAnd now wanting to lose a war, he sent 500,000 troops into South Vietnam. It wasn't a decision to win a war. It was simply a decision not to lose it. And I'm trying to argue in "The Road to War" that the key issue I think ought to be, if you're going to have a declaration of war, understand what it is. A declaration of war is a shrill call by the Congress of the United States that everybody should get into the act. Everyone should contribute. Everyone should make absolutely clear that the U.S. wins.

  • 13:23:17

    KALBRemember that when President George W. Bush went into Iraq at the beginning of 2003 and right after 9/11, one of the things that that President Bush did was not ask everyone for a common sacrifice. He urged people to go shopping.

  • 13:23:37

    NNAMDII remember.

  • 13:23:38

    KALBYes. Well, but you can't play around with war like that. War -- if you're sending kids off to die, there must be a nation behind them.

  • 13:23:50

    NNAMDIRequires the engagement of the American people. Allow me to go to -- put on your headphones, please, Marvin, because Tafera (sp?) in Silver Spring, Md. awaits us. Tafera, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:24:02

    TAFERAHi. I teach governmental history in Montgomery County. And a conversation that I've had with my students around this is that even though Article 1, Section 8 gives congress the power to declare war, it never said that force to not be introduced into a foreign country without congress declaring war. So it seems to be that it's very nonspecific and it's not as clear that this is all in congress' control as I think that your author makes it sound like. So I just wanted to hear his reaction about that. Like, you know, the Constitution does not prohibit the introduction of force without declaration of war.

  • 13:24:38

    NNAMDITafera feels she has found the loophole through which presidents ride.

  • 13:24:42

    KALBWell, this is a very legalistic interpretation of the Constitution and I think the question is a legitimate one. But I would ask our questioner to find that part of the Constitution that says, the United States can introduce forces where it wishes simply on the basis of presidential whim or decision without any, any communication with the Congress of the United States. The central point here is that wars are fought on behalf of the United States by Americans. They all have representatives. Those representatives ought to be part of the decision so that all Americans are involved in the decision itself about war.

  • 13:25:30

    KALBI simply feel that we've got to be mindful of what war is all about. Because we have been engaged in so many wars in recent decades, we seem to take it as a matter of course that there's always going to be a war. But there isn't always a war and certainly there shouldn't always be war.

  • 13:25:51

    NNAMDITafera, thank you very much for your call. We're going to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. If not, the number is 800-433-8850. Do you think the U.S. Congress should officially declare war before we deploy troops and to aid in conflicts? Why or why not, 800-433-8850? Or if you've got any other questions for Marvin Kalb about how the U.S. is or is not involved in global hotspots. You can also send us an email to, a Tweet at kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:28:13

    NNAMDITalking with Marvin Kalb. He is Edward R. Murrow professor emeritus at Harvard and guest scholar in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. His latest book is called "The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed." We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send email to Marvin, as we draw down our presence in Iraq and in Afghanistan and as we see the effects of the sequester on military spending, do you think the way we go to war and the way we declare war in the coming years is likely to change?

  • 13:28:52

    KALBWell, my gut feeling in answering that is no, it is not likely to change. The same pattern of decision-making is likely to continue but the technology is changing. And it's changing very rapidly. The NSA issue -- the National Security Agency in the way in which it listens in on a variety of email and telephone traffic, I believe the government, by the way, and I believe the president that we're not actually listening to conversation, not actually reading emails. But we are certainly conveying the impression all over the world that that is exactly what we're doing. And not just to the American people, but to people all over the world.

  • 13:29:43

    KALBJust a couple of days ago, Secretary of State Kerry, I was reading, was down in Brazil. And the Brazilian foreign minister scolded him in public, saying that this is something that we are not going to tolerate. And the president was making the point at his news conference last week that the information on which so much of the criticism rests is simply not accurate. In other words, that people really feel the government is listening in.

  • 13:30:14

    KALBMy own gut feeling is that the president is telling the truth. But at this point so many things have happened, not just about NSA surveillance but so many other issues that the president's own credibility is now on the line in foreign affairs and in domestic affairs. And so he suffers the consequences of that kind of loss of believability.

  • 13:30:44

    NNAMDIBut you also seem to be suggesting that because of the way war is waged these days, because of the way our security agencies are operating that it becomes increasingly preferential for the executive not to want too much transparency. And invariably if there are to be discussions about whether or not we declare war, there's going to have to be greater transparency. There's going to have to be more information provided. Well, the president is the commander in chief and military brass don't always like answering to congress. What sense do you have about how generals, admirals and maybe even average soldiers feel about the way in which they're sent to battle?

  • 13:31:22

    KALBI think, Kojo, that you expressed it very well just a moment ago. They do not want to share information. However, we all live in a democracy, as good as it is, and that democracy encourages people to be more transparent. And the president himself has said time and time again that he wants transparency from his government. So there is the pressure that comes from within the government, but more importantly from outside the government from the media and from the public, from the new social media, the Twitter accounts and all of that demanding answers to questions. And these are legitimate questions.

  • 13:32:10

    KALBAnd so the public is simply saying -- you get back to that issue about war -- the public is simply saying, bring us in. Let us know what is going on. But that is in conflict with the central part you were raising before. As you get more deeply into a complicated world where you're going to have to send troops abroad, without having to go to congress and listen to all of that conversation, to put it most politely, they feel -- the president feels and the executive branch feels we know best. And we're going to have to do this because we cannot allow too many facts to come out. And that's really too bad.

  • 13:32:53

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Gilbert in Rockville, Md. Gilbert, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:32:59

    GILBERTWell, thanks for taking my call. I think the issue of presidents acting without congressional authorization goes way back in our history. Thomas Jefferson was authorized by congress to do whatever necessary to combat the Barbary pirates. And in addition to that, at the same time we had an undeclared naval war with France.

  • 13:33:22

    NNAMDISo you're saying that there is some precedent for this.

  • 13:33:26

    GILBERTOh, yes.

  • 13:33:27

    NNAMDIWhat do you say, Marvin?

  • 13:33:27

    KALBWell, the first declaration of war actually came right after what Gilbert is saying, and that is in 1812 was the first declaration of war by congress precisely because of what it is that is being described. There was a war with France but the United States was also in a deeper war with England. And so when the U.S. decided, prompted and instigated by many, many British actions to quote "go to war," the president at that time believed that it was important that congress get into the act. And that was the first of five times and five wars when congress did declare war.

  • 13:34:06

    KALBThe period that we're in now, after so many wars without congressional really proper authorization, is something quite new.

  • 13:34:17

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Gilbert. You too can call us at 800-433-8850. If you're current or former military, how do you feel about the way the U.S. decides to deploy troops, 800-433-8850? Or if you have a broader question, what changes in U.S. foreign policy would you like to see? You can send email to

  • 13:34:38

    NNAMDIMarvin, the other thing I noticed in "The Road to War" was the way in which when presidents decide to wage war on the basis of quote unquote "commitments," the process of extracting themselves from that war, the process of scaling back often done after reading the polls indicating the sentiments of the American people, is very interesting. And you describe how it happens in the Vietnam era. Do you think that the lessons of that era are instructive for what we are currently involved in, say in Afghanistan?

  • 13:35:12

    KALBThey should be instructive. They should be instructive, but sorry to say, I don't see a great deal of evidence of that. There is some however, to be absolutely fair. I think that President Obama is a reader of history. I think he's an extremely smart man. I think he understands. And one of the reasons he is so reluctant to put forces into Syria, for example, holding back on comments -- he made one comment this morning -- but holding back generally speaking on the tragedy taking place before our eyes in Egypt, is that he does not want to get trapped. He does not want to get involved in a foreign war over which the United States will not have decisive control.

  • 13:36:00

    KALBAnd he feels that if we get into a war, a little bit will quickly lead to a lot and would be sort of in for a penny, in for a pound. He doesn't want that because of the lesson of Vietnam.

  • 13:36:14

    NNAMDIAnd talk about that lesson, because in this book you describe how, in the same way that Truman was more interested in Soviet penetration in Europe, by that time in the 1970s Nixon was more interested in a summit with Moscow than he really was in Indochina. But he had to apparently attempt to figure out how to do both things at the same time.

  • 13:36:38

    KALBAnd he engaged in what was called triangular diplomacy. What he did was think about a way of making the Vietnam War insignificant. What he wanted was to create a magical feeling that all of the killing going on in South Vietnam was not going on in South Vietnam. And that we are now dealing on a higher level, so that he went to a summit meeting and a groundbreaking, tremendously important meeting in China with the Chinese. And then he went three or four months later to Moscow.

  • 13:37:20

    KALBAnd with both communist giants who were feeding arms and supplies into North Vietnam to continue the war against the United States, he was appealing to them, look we're big guys. We don't have to deal with Vietnam. Let's deal with big things like nuclear weapons and let's control them. But both of them, both Russia and China wanted to have their lollipops and play the game at the same time.

  • 13:37:49

    KALBAnd so they did reach agreements with the United States at the same time as they continued to supply Vietnam. And Nixon desperately was seeking a way out of the war. And what he found was the only way he could get out was to pull out, but to do it gradually, 50,000 troops at a time, 75,000 troops out. And Kissinger argued, I think very wisely at that time, if you reduce America's military strength in Vietnam with all of these withdrawals, we weaken our negotiating position in Paris.

  • 13:38:30

    KALBSo don't look for the North Vietnamese to negotiate in good faith. They won't and they didn't. They took us to the cleaners. And Nixon effectively caved. There was one key moment, Kojo, when the key issue in the negotiation was that foreign forces on both sides withdraw from South Vietnam. Problem, the North Vietnamese felt they're part of the Vietnam and they don't have to withdraw from South Vietnam. So what Nixon did was to tell Kissinger to go to the North Vietnamese and drop the phrase, the necessity for North Vietnam to leave South Vietnam.

  • 13:39:15

    KALBThe minute he dropped that phrase, he capitulated to the communists but he said to the American people that the North Vietnamese were accepting his terms and they were surrendering, which was absolute nonsense.

  • 13:39:30

    NNAMDIWhich began the, I guess, phrase declaring victory and then getting the heck out of there...

  • 13:39:36


  • 13:39:37

    NNAMDI...which seems to have become a pattern. But I want to switch to another issue. A lot of our involvement has stemmed from treaties or longstanding alliances. But you note that our ties to Israel are a bit of an outlier in that regard. How so?

  • 13:39:54

    KALBWell, the Israeli issue is, I think, absolutely fascinating. And now that the Israeli's and the Palestinians are engaging in negotiations, which I hope will be successful -- first time in five years that they are -- the Israelis have always felt that to a very large extent that they're on their own. I had the privilege, Kojo, as a reporter of being able to talk to three Israeli prime ministers at some length. One of them was Golda Meir, another was Menachem Begin, diversely good leader, a very conservative man. And then Yitzhak Rabin who was murdered in 1996.

  • 13:40:38

    KALBIn all of my conversations with them, they all would express the same idea of betrayal, that the United States would betray Israel when everything was on the line. And I would argue with them as best I could, how could you possibly say that? Look at what the United States has done for Israel, all of the money, all of the arms, all of the diplomatic and political support. You do recognize that. And they would all come back and say, oh yes, we love the United States, but at the end of the day we're going to be alone. You're going to go home and you're going to leave us here. We're going to have to do this all by ourselves.

  • 13:41:24

    KALBBy the way -- a little insert here -- in South Vietnam in Cambodia, the great leader of Cambodia Prince Sihanouk told my dear brother Barnard, at one point, you know what's going to happen in Vietnam? You're going to leave Vietnam and you're going to leave the communists here to look after us. Thank you very much. Switch over to the Middle East. The Israelis...

  • 13:41:51

    NNAMDII should mention, both Barnard and Marvin were working for CBS News.

  • 13:41:54

    KALBThat's right. And in Israel is it always this feeling held not just by sort of the average Israeli, but in a sense more importantly by the people who do the negotiating, the prime ministers, they depend on the president to send them letters -- secret letters of support. They cherish those letters of support. But what they really want now, Kojo, is a treaty. They want something, they argue, that the U.S. has with countries all over the world. Why can't there be a mutual defense treaty with Israel as well? The United States is sort of reluctant to go down that path but would do it.

  • 13:42:40

    NNAMDIBecause if the United States wants to be a mediator, I suspect that the United States feels that if it has a treaty with Israel than it will not be seen as an objective mediator. Not that it's necessarily seen as an objective mediator now but at least it's seen now as a credible mediator.

  • 13:42:58

    KALBAbsolutely. Absolutely. And that is the central reason why the U.S. has been holding back. But starting with President Clinton, he has told Israeli prime ministers -- and I'm very proud of it, it's in chapter 9 if you want to check it out...

  • 13:43:14

    NNAMDII did.

  • 13:43:16

    KALB...that he has told Israeli prime ministers, if you get a deal with the Palestinians, you come in with a deal we will than give you a treaty. Right now it's gone even further. And we're not talking about this at the moment because it isn't right at hand. However, the United States is going to have to put troops -- American troops will be part of a Palestinian-Israeli deal. It'll be treaty and troops on the part of the U.S. And let's not kid ourselves. That is what will have to happen.

  • 13:43:54

    NNAMDIBut what the Israeli's seem to be saying however, is that in the same way that the president on the basis of commitments have made war that the relationship with Israel is really based on presidential whim?

  • 13:44:08

    KALBNot presidential whim. They do believe that the president -- whichever president -- when he sends a letter of support means it. And I certainly have found in my research for this book and in the years that I spent reporting from the Middle East on the Middle East, that an American president, when he sends a letter of support to Israel, means it, means to commit the United States to whatever it is that he says. I'm raising the question from the Israeli side, is it believed -- and it is to an extent -- that they do feel that at the end of the day they may very well be left alone?

  • 13:44:48

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, the number's 800-433-8850, what changes in U.S. foreign policy would you like to see? We'll talk a little bit about Egypt when we come back, if you have questions or comments about that, 800-433-8850. We're talking with Marvin Kalb about his new book "The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:47:05

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Marvin Kalb. He is Edward R. Murrow professor emeritus at Harvard and guest scholar in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. His latest book is called "The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed." I'd like to get to what some of our listeners are asking, but I did promise mentioning Egypt, Marvin. That situation has been deteriorating, coming to a head with reports of widespread violence yesterday. What do you make of the semantics and the stark realities of the situation there? But I guess even just as important is what options and obligations does the U.S. have in terms of getting involved?

  • 13:47:44

    KALBThis is one of those painful, painful problems that presidents get paid to face. And I'm glad it's Obama. At this particular point, Kojo, I think that we are in a kind of quicksand and we're sinking much more quickly than we ever imagined a week or two or five ago. What we are seeing is a situation spiraling out of control, with the military the only force capable of imposing order. But the only way it can do that is by killing people.

  • 13:48:24

    KALBNow the people with the weapons right now, I am certain there are weapons on both sides. But most of the weapons are on the side of the military. They are moving in and they simply have never liked the Muslim Brotherhood, never. That goes back decades. This is their time to crack down and they are determined to do it. I bumped into Senator McCain the other day when he had just returned from Cairo. And I said, Senator, do you see a way out of this? You've talked to both sides there. And he said that he thought that the Muslim Brotherhood was showing a big more flexibility than the government, than the military government.

  • 13:49:08

    KALBHowever, he thought at the end of the day there's going to be terrible bloodshed. And of course, that is what we are seeing right now.

  • 13:49:16

    NNAMDIThat's what we're facing today. Back to your book, "The Road to War," we got an email from Robert in Alexandria who says, "While I tend to agree that congressional declaration would be the ideal way to engage in war, it strikes me that the current congress is so completely dysfunctional that it could never get to such a declaration. Yet there are times when military action is needed quickly to defend against threats. Would Mr. Kalb support any kind of interim declaration short of war when needed to respond to such situations? Perhaps time limits on presidential declaration?"

  • 13:49:50

    KALBWell, it's interesting. There was a time limit on the War Powers Act, as I'm sure Robert remembers. That takes us back to the tail end of the Vietnam War, I believe was 1973. And at that time the congress did pass a law that said, if the president wants to take the nation to war, it can do so for 60 days. But if the war is not over in 60 days and you want to go longer than 60 days, we'll give you only an additional 30. And then you've got to pull out. The law is an absurdity and it has never been obeyed. And it has never been obeyed because putting a time limit on a war is unrealistic.

  • 13:50:35

    KALBSo yes, it would be a wonderful thing to put a time limit. Yes, it would be nice to have limited congressional contributions in one way or another. But I think Robert is right that the congress today is in such a feisty, unhappy conflicted mood that it doesn't really want compromise. It doesn't really want a resolution of a problem. It wants the conflict. And I believe, by the way, if I had to divide this up, that it's sort of 80 percent on the Tea Party Republican side and 20 percent on the Democratic side. Either way the arithmetic goes, both sides are -- seem to be poised not for compromise but for additional polarization.

  • 13:51:27

    NNAMDIOne of the reasons I found Andy from Rockville's email fascinating was because in the book "The Road to War" Marvin Kalb points out that in the Cold War, the enemy had a headquarters. It was the Kremlin. Now here is Andy's email. "What are your thoughts on the legitimacy of the so-called war on terror? To me it was a terrible and clever construct with no definable criteria. Indeed, how could such a war ever be considered done or won? How did it come to pass and how can such an ill-founded approach be prevented in the future?"

  • 13:52:04

    KALBI'm not sure that it can be prevented in the future and I think that Andy is a very wise man. He's got a lot of things, in my judgment, exactly right. The way these things emerge is that when the United States is attacked -- and we have to remember that 9/11 was similar to Pearl Harbor because on both occasions the United States was attacked by a foreign power -- but 9/11, the attacker didn't have an address. And there was no real leader. There was Osama bin Laden, yes, but he was not interested in negotiating. He wanted an entire Islamic world.

  • 13:52:45

    KALBSo the president had to act and he did it essentially on his own, going from one war to another. But I think enough is enough, that there ought to be a point now where the American people, through their representatives, participate more actively and directly in decisions of war. I'm not talking about a Benghazi episode. I'm not talking about a limited operation. I'm talking about a war that commits the United States to send a half a million troops to fight.

  • 13:53:20

    KALBLet us say, when President George H. W. Bush sent a half million troops, he did ask the congress to have a debate. They did have a debate. It was very close. There was a five-vote margin. And Bush said himself -- very interesting -- in letters that he wrote to his children afterward, he said that if it had gone the other way, and he didn't have the five but lost by one vote, he said, I would've been impeached. He feared he would be impeached for sending troops abroad without congressional authority.

  • 13:53:58

    KALBSo Bush one was a very sensitive man who understood the limitations of American power and that if you're going to extend that power, have the congress with you. And at that time he did by five votes.

  • 13:54:13

    NNAMDIMarvin, there's also the conundrum of Iran. You have suggested that if there is no movement in negotiations with Tehran by the fall, congress will take up the question of what to do about the country's moves towards developing a nuclear weapon. Why do you suggest that and what do you think the odds of such conversations taking place are?

  • 13:54:31

    KALBI think the odds are slim that there would be a congressional debate spelling out the parameters of a possible war with Iran. And one of the major reasons would be, not that the congress couldn't do it, it could, but that the administration probably would not really cooperate. Because the administration would argue, Kojo -- as you were saying earlier, the administration would say, we need security. We need secrecy in order to carry on this kind of a war. We have to deal with our Israeli allies and this, that and the other.

  • 13:55:07

    KALBThis was the kind -- the -- an attack on Iran by the United States would be an ear-shattering explosion heard all over the world. It would be the United States going into Iraq then going into Afghanistan, then sort of fainting, going into Libya. Then what are we going to do in Syria? It is too much American military force on display. And people don't want it.

  • 13:55:37

    NNAMDIIt can only be, I guess, seen in -- if it is don’t in retaliation to an attack. But if it is a preemptive attack on Iran without the approval of the Congress of the United States, without debate by the Congress of the United States than we're talking about a worldwide conundrum. We got this email from Philip in Annapolis, Md. "Wasn't the draft a way of sharing the sacrifice of war? Right now we basically feel the mercenary army with the sacrifice borne only by the troops themselves and their families. How does that factor into this issue?

  • 13:56:12

    KALBI think that's a terrific point, and thank you, Philip, for raising it. Right now .6 percent of the total American people -- .6 percent fight on behalf of the United States. Ninety-nine point 4 percent of us sit back, filled with admiration for their courage but we're not doing much at all. We're shopping. This is something that is immoral. It is simply wrong. I'm not saying you should reconstitute the draft but reconstitute, in my judgment, some kind of national service that includes military service so that people recognize that they have an obligation to their country.

  • 13:57:03

    KALBRight now there is a split and the American people are not that committed to military operations. They -- as I said, they're shopping and the .6 percent are fighting.

  • 13:57:17

    NNAMDII should mention that later this year, November 13, Marvin Kalb will be featured in a PBS American Experience documentary special titled JFK, 1 p.m. central standard time. It tells the story of what was happening with reports on the ground from Dallas and in the CBS newsroom when Walter Cronkite made the announcement of his death at that hour. Marvin Kalb was among those working on that day. Marvin, always a pleasure.

  • 13:57:43

    KALBOh, it's my pleasure, Kojo. Thank you.

  • 13:57:45

    NNAMDIMarvin Kalb is Edward R. Murrow professor emeritus at Harvard and guest scholar in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. His latest book is called "The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed." The Kojo Nnamdi Show is produced by Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff and Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier, Elizabeth Weinstein and Stephannie Stokes. Brendan Sweeney is the managing producer. Today's engineers, Jonathan Cherry and Karen Stamper. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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