The Distorted Presidential War Powers

It has become too easy for an American president, any American president, to go to war.

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Members of a U.S. 1st Cavalry Division unit crouch along a treeline under intense North Vietnamese fire in March 1967, near Bong Son, along the South Vietnamese coast.

Marvin Kalb's new book, "The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed" (Brookings Institution Press), is an elegant synthesis of how easy, too easy, it has become for an American president, any American president, to go to war. Just ask George W. Bush. Not to mention how hard it is for one president to end a war – just ask the ghosts of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon about Vietnam.

Congress has ceded its rightful role in declaring war and tends to go along with the man in the White House. That we know. This book – which mixes reporting, reflections and scholarly analysis – draws a map for how we reached this point. It is superb in explaining the machinations of Nixon's Secretary of State, one Henry Kissinger, in China, Vietnam and the Soviet Union.

The author tries to right the ship of state, arguing that so much power should not be concentrated in the captain. For one thing, he argues, one president may not honor his predecessor's commitments, setting up a sense of betrayal. The word of an American president is still seen as a "gold standard" in a restless and turbulent world, Kalb tells us. Like it or not, America is seen as the last best hope for moral, financial and military support in conflicts, civil wars and rebellions – just ask Bosnia or Egypt.

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One of Washington's "wise men," Kalb draws on years spent as a CBS News diplomatic correspondent, his time teaching the media and politics at Harvard University and his own research to share his insights. Perhaps the most critical is that an unwise pledge to send troops somewhere can be handed down from one administration to another, escalating with no end in sight. This happened in the tragic Vietnam War, the only "lost war," as Kalb calls it, with heartbreaking consequences abroad and at home. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not exactly our finest moments, are at least ending. Korea was a "stalemate."

In a revealing journey, Kalb surveys American foreign policy from Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower up to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. For the most part, it's a sad story. He faults Truman's deaf ear to the "overtures" of a new Vietnamese communist leader, Ho Chi–minh, as especially fateful. As Kalb observes: "A problem arose in Southeast Asia that was not on Truman's calendar, but should have been."

Eisenhower's eight years in the 1950s were hardly the pacific sea that many make this period out to be. Rather, he was in the center of the defining Cold War administration filled with "angry, impatient hawks ready to fly into the nearest war." Their readiness to use nuclear brinkmanship is clear here. Eisenhower himself was the restraining influence in this crowd, but failed to consult Congress as he dug deeper into that problem in Southeast Asia. And his every move on the chessboard seemed to lead to the Soviet Union.

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Eisenhower was the first president to confront key lessons of the bipolar Cold War. As Kalb wrote, "the United States could not use its nuclear power to impose its will on smaller nations, such as Korea and Vietnam, without running the risk of superpower confrontation."

As we know too well, personality and circumstances cast Johnson in the leading tragic role in living memory. He was the president that paid a heavy price for that problem in Southeast Asia started by his predecessors. Yet let the record show he did go to Congress over Vietnam in 1964. Kalb's chapters on subsequent presidents show how they have had essentially a free hand, since the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, in engaging foes real or imagined.

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Kalb's lucid way with words makes the narrative flow throughout. For the first time as an author, he departs from the voice of a disinterested observer giving "just the facts, ma'am." Here and there he adds his own experience and opinion to the telling, which I think gives the account more authority and life.

In the end, Kalb comes to Israel, with whom we have had both rocky and rosy times in recent years. In an impressive sweep, he applies the lessons learned from his own book of history and says it is time to end the unwritten understandings between the closest of allies. Instead, it is time for a treaty.

"The time has come to institutionalize the U.S. – Israeli relationship so that everything does not rest any longer on the decisions of one person," Kalb declares. This authoritative clarion call is a piece of his mind well worth having.

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