The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed
The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed

The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed

Oct 4, 2013

TV Show


The last declaration of war authorized by Congress was World War II, yet the U.S. has been entangled in many wars since. Why have presidents been allowed to sidestep Congress for the last 70 years? The  U.S. should have an agreed-upon set of guidelines for going to war, says Marvin Kalb. It should not be left up to presidents to decide.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to thank you all for joining us.

Our speaker today is legendary journalist Marvin Kalb. Many of you may remember this award-winning reporter and commentator who appeared on CBS and NBC News, including a stint on Meet the Press. It has been said that he covered the news at a time when news was really news.

It is indeed a pleasure to welcome him here to discuss his latest and most timely of books, entitled The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed.

In this age of Twitter, YouTube clips, and instant feedback, it's quite apparent that what you say does matter, especially if you are the president of the United States, and especially when it comes to committing our country to defending our nation. If you or I agree to do something, more than likely we will honor that pledge, and if we choose not to, depending on the situation, the consequences would probably be small. But when the commander-in-chief makes a commitment, particularly when it comes to matters of foreign policy, his words matter much more. Why? Simply because what he says could set us on a controversial course of action, even leading the nation on the road to war, which could last long beyond his term in office.

Moreover, if the president reneges on previous commitments, couldn't this be seen as a betrayal? All one has to do is think back to a year or so ago, when President Obama told the world that if Bashar al-Assad ever attempted to use chemical weapons, this would cross a red line. From the moment he uttered these words—a moment I'm sure he would like to take back—he made a commitment and now finds himself wrestling with the importance of keeping foreign policy promises or going back on his word.

In The Road to War, our speaker explores the tangled history of the various foreign policy commitments that presidents have made and the machinations that followed so that they could extricate themselves from their words. While the U.S. Constitution stipulates beyond the shadow of a doubt that only Congress can declare war, Mr. Kalb tells us how easy it has become for an American president to go to war and then how difficult it is to end one.

Here's the question: If the last declaration of war authorized by Congress was our entry into World War II, how has it happened that time and time again, whether it was in Korea, Panama, Vietnam, Grenada, Lebanon, Bosnia, Afghanistan, or Iraq, America ended up going to war without the constitutional requirement of a congressional mandate?

For the answer, the insights, and scholarly analysis, please join me in welcoming a very wise man, our speaker today, Marvin Kalb.

Thank you so much for joining us.


MARVIN KALB: Thank you.

What I would like to do, following up on a very gracious introduction, is to tell you how this book came to be written and the effect that it has had so far in Washington in the way in which decisions are made.

I covered the Vietnam War. I'm old enough to have covered the Vietnam War. While I was in Vietnam and trying to cover a very complex story, there was a question that kept coming to my mind: How did it work out, how did it happen, that here I am covering a war in which 562,000 American troops have been sent to a rather small country in Southeast Asia? By what authority? Well, the president sent them here. What authority did he have to do this, and under what circumstances?

I began then to ask questions of ambassadors who represented the United States at that time in Vietnam. I would be going back and forth to a couple of them and, more important to me, the generals who were ordering the troops here and there. What did they think? It was very interesting to get a difference of perspective, which was natural, between a diplomat and a general, but both were puzzled about how the United States got into this entanglement. How did it happen?

So that question has always been on my mind. I kept wondering, as I would go from one book to another. Please explain to me first, so that I could explain to others, how presidents decide to take countries into war.

Up until World War II, this country had a reasonably understood system, a widely understood system. The Congress had certain responsibilities and the president had others. The Congress's responsibilities were, first, to declare war and, second, to provide the money to fight the war. The president, as commander-in-chief, had other responsibilities. But the two of them came together. When both sides, the executive branch of government and the legislative branch of government, felt that they were following the common interests of the nation—which is not necessarily true today, as I think we all recognize—at a time when that did happen and was consistent with American policy, there was no conflict, because both sides essentially had the same idea about the threat to America's security interests and what each side could do to protect the nation.

There were five times in American history when declarations of war were proclaimed. The first one goes back to 1812, the Brits; 1846, the Mexicans; 1898, the Spanish; World War I; and World War II. Since World War II, the United States, as we know, has been involved in one war after another.

If you begin to explore the reasons why we got into each one of these wars, there are specific reasons and then there are overarching reasons. One of the overarching reasons was that after World War II, we suddenly found ourselves in a nuclear world. That had a profound effect upon policymaking, because people in Congress felt that if you go to war and if you may have to use nuclear weapons, that's a big-time decision, and we'll let the president handle that and we will deal with our responsibilities, like legislation. There's a large responsibility to make sure the proper laws are passed for this nation.

That started as a trickle, but began to become a flow as we got into just the pre-9/11 period, but certainly post-9/11.

A second factor was the rise of the Cold War. In the midst of the Cold War, our thinking became overly simplified. If the Russians were in favor of something, we generally opposed it, and vice versa. If the Russians were making a move into Latin America, we had to block it. It wasn't that we had to block it for reasons that related to specific American interests, except in that broad context of the Cold War.

When you think about the Vietnam War, which to me is almost the beginning of the end of so much, Harry Truman did not get us involved in Vietnam because he was interested in Vietnam. He barely knew where it was on a map. And, by the way, he was not alone. Most people in Washington didn't know where it was. Except in 1949, the Chinese went communist, and suddenly there was this image in Washington, looking out at the rest of the world, of everything turning red—the Soviet Union, China. Then there were moves on the part of communist parties in different parts of the world, in what we called the developing world, that we considered to be threats to America's security interests.

Truman began to send $150 million in military supplies to the good guys in Vietnam starting in the late 1940s. Why? It had nothing to do with Vietnam. It had everything to do with Europe and everything to do with where the French were. There was, as some of you may remember, a vigorous French communist party after World War II, and in the 1948 elections, they won 42 percent of the vote. That was a big deal. In Washington, there was a great fear that France, too, would go communist. You remember that Stalin was moving his empire further westward.

So there was a preoccupation in Washington about Europe, about Stalin, about the Soviet Union. Nobody was thinking of Vietnam, except the French, who wanted to reimpose colonial rule in Indochina.

We were opposed to the reimposition of colonial rule, but we were more concerned about keeping France in NATO and very much committed to an anti-communist position. And so if the French came to us and said, "Hey, help us out a little bit, will you?" we did.

So the $150 million, more or less, at the beginning spread to $500 million. Then, when Eisenhower came in—and in 1954, there was the Geneva Conference on Indochina—Eisenhower was very reluctant, very reluctant, as a general to get any kind of military involvement in Indochina. He wanted no part of it. What he did want was to make sure that the piece of Vietnam south of the 17th parallel that we christened South Vietnam remained anti-communist, part of the Free World. As part of the Free World, Eisenhower was determined to make sure that that corner of the world remained non-communist.

What did that mean? That meant that by the tail end of the 1950s, we were beginning to send military advisors to help. In 1954, the French were effectively militarily defeated. Could the United States simply leave this infant South Vietnam alone? No, we could not.

One of the wonderful parts of writing a book is the research part, where you get to meet and talk to all kinds of people. I spoke to a lot of people who were very much involved in the French control over Indochina and the American military people who began to move in and replace the French in the 1950s, under Eisenhower, who was opposed to any U.S. military engagement in South Vietnam. He was opposed to it. When people like his vice president, Richard Nixon, or his chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended here the use of two tactical nuclear weapons, after the French were defeated, to save the French and to save the Western position, Eisenhower said, "You guys are out of your mind. The answer is flat-out no."

But if it was to be "no" to nuclear weapons, it could not be "no" to the supply of non-military stuff, and we began to send a lot of stuff.

In 1959, this is the way commitments get formed. There are not evil people in Washington figuring out how to get the United States trapped into another war. Things just emerge; they happen. Politicians do not ordinarily—ordinarily—have the guts to make a command decision when they feel it's against the interests of the country, but they're concerned about their political position. There's always a balance, and politics quite often trumps national security.

Eisenhower said in 1959, in a speech at Gettysburg College—and I'm going to give you something that's awfully close to an exact word for word—the future of a non-communist, independent South Vietnam is in the direct security interests of the United States.

Suddenly, a great general, two-time president, a guy who is an expert on military affairs—words come out of the president's mouth. He links the future of an independent South Vietnam to the security interests of the United States.

So when President Kennedy comes in, a young, relatively inexperienced president, and sits down on January 19, 1961 with the outgoing Republican president—the last of the 19th century presidents, by the way, to the first of the 20th century presidents—Kennedy was listening very carefully. Eisenhower said to him at a private meeting, "You're going to have a couple of problems, young Mr. President. Among them is Indochina. That breaks down, as you know. There's Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam. In Laos the communists are doing bad things. They are really moving in, and the Vietnamese are helping them. So I, Ike, tell you, JFK, to consider Laos a security interest of the United States, requiring a Western military commitment to its defense. If you can get our allies to join us, great. But if you cannot, then we have to do it on our own. Is that understood?"

There was then, in Geneva, a Laos conference. Averell Harriman, who was in charge of that, was simply too shrewd and too experienced to get sucked into a situation where the United States would have to send troops to Laos. Harriman just didn't think that made any sense and persuaded Kennedy, to Kennedy's credit, not to think about Laos as a military problem, but as a diplomatic problem, and if we can neutralize Laos, that's much better than sending troops there. And that's what we did.

But very much with Eisenhower's admonition still in mind, Kennedy switched from Laos to Vietnam. What he told his security people was that we can neutralize Laos; we cannot lose South Vietnam. Then he picked up Eisenhower's comments in 1959 and pointed to them and said, "Hey, look, we are committed."

That's a great word, by the way, in the American diplomatic lexicon. Whenever you hear presidents talk about our commitment, watch your wallet, because something dramatic is going to take place. Sometimes it's underhanded and sometimes it's straight-out.

When the United States of America is committed to something, that's a big deal. It takes on political and economic implications. But more than anything, the national being of the United States is involved in something. If a nation has an ego, the United States had a huge ego, and commitments meant force.

When Kennedy was killed and Johnson came over, he turned to one of his key people, a young writer in Texas named Ronnie Duggan [phonetic], and said to him, "When you write about me, you write about me as one big tough Texan. I'm not like those boys from Massachusetts who play around with words and things. I'm tough. That's the way we Texans are. So put the word out. I am not going to be the first president to lose a war, point number one. I am not going to be the president to see Indochina go down the drain, point number two."

So when people like me began to go there and cover that war, we suddenly found ourselves caught up in something that was not born of a conscious commitment based upon an analysis of why the United States must send a half-a-million soldiers to South Vietnam. It simply emerged as a result of a series of words, commitments, actions, the Cold War, the belief that you had to stop the communists from taking any additional real estate around the world, because it was considered that their win is our loss. We could not tolerate that.

So you find yourself involved in a series of situations where the United States of America simply has, for the last 70 years, found itself in one of these wars after another.

As I said earlier, Congress increasingly finds itself absorbed now with fundraising. Bear in mind the figure of 50 to 70 percent. Senator Daschle, when he was in office—he's no longer there—said that our current—"our" meaning politicians—we are now spending, he said, 50 to 70 percent of every single day getting money.

Think about this. If that is the case, how much is left to do legislation? How much is left to be serious about issues involving the interests of the nation? Not that much. Some, but not that much.

Presidents then began, almost by default, to pick up what became a singular, almost sole responsibility for checking out the world and determining that that country over there must be protected, that one over there we're going to send some troops to, this one over there we cannot allow the communists to take over. It was a presidential decision.

The National Security Council, under Eisenhower, consisted of four people. Today, it has, quite literally, dozens. It's a slightly smaller State Department that is now at the White House. Decisions that used to be State Department decisions are now definitely White House decisions. Everything has accumulated, with just this immense, increasing power of the White House, of the presidency.

So the president can now determine that the U.S. has to fight in X, Y, or Z, and the Congress either says nothing or will pat the president on the back with a resolution of support; or, every now and then, as happened at the tail end of 1990 and early 1991, there was a genuine discussion in the Senate about whether the United States should send troops into Kuwait. It was a five-vote difference at the end in the Senate, a 52-47 vote. Three guys changed their minds, and it would have gone the other way.

George H. W. Bush wrote a fascinating letter to his children on New Year's Eve 1990 in which he said, based on information passed on to him by Democratic senators, he had made up his mind—encouraged by Margaret Thatcher, but, nevertheless, he had made up his mind—that he was going to kick the Iraqis out of Kuwait; an unacceptable proposition that they be there.

Let us say for a second that it was 52-47 against action. George H. W. had made up his mind that he would have sent the troops anyway. The Democrats came to him and said, "Mr. President, if you do that, impeachment proceedings will probably begin."

He said, "So be it."

He was calculating that they can threaten, but they're not going to really impeach me for doing what I as president consider to be in the national interests of the United States.

Fortunately for him, it went 47-52 in his direction. So he had, then, the Congress with him when he sent the troops in.

Let's jump ahead—it was alluded to earlier—to Syria, this issue that came up within the last six weeks. The president decides to attack after learning about the gas attacks in Syria. He's going to launch an attack on Syria; then—here parenthesis—fill in the blanks about how serious the attack will be and what Kerry said. You don't really know what would have happened. But we would have attacked.

Then he decides that he's going to go to Congress.

Here I want to put in a large parenthesis. The way in which policy works in Washington, it is an extremely capricious, uncharted territory sometimes. But the role of think tanks in Washington in terms of influencing policy has become extremely large. I'm associated with Brookings, which is a very good middle-of-the-road, slightly left think tank. When I did this book—and the first copies began to be circulated in June—because I had been around Washington for a while and not totally unknown, a couple of friends of mine distributed the book to three people at the National Security Council.

Here, as a reporter, I have to tell you that I cannot vouch for anything that I'm about to say. I am simply told this, but I have no way of knowing if it's true.

The three of them at meetings began to talk about the theme of this book, which is that a nation such as the United States of America ought to have an agreed-upon, understood set of guidelines for going to war. It should not be a capricious operation. It should not be something left in the hands of a president to figure out more or less what he wants, with or without congressional approval. There ought to be a system set up that a president understands and that Congress understands and the American people understand is the way we go to war, some not rigid system, but understood system.

That word did get to the president, I'm told, and that did contribute to his decision to go to Congress. Close parenthesis on this.

He did go to Congress, and we all know what happened. Congress, without a vote, indicated very strongly they wanted no part of it.

This is where a central issue comes into play. It involves the United States, not only with respect to Syria, but Iran as well. We don't know how the Iranian thing with Rouhani will work out or won't work out. But you have to plan for both. You have to plan for diplomacy working, but not working as well.

The president is on record as committing the United States to block Iran from having a nuclear bomb—the president has said that time and time again. He also said, with Syria, that the use of poison gas would be a red line. President Obama then goes to Congress. Congress indicates no. Supposing there was no Putin for a minute, and the president decides the Congress says no, but then, like George H. W. Bush — the president and the White House being an extremely important factor, by the way—if one president thought, well, it's important enough to do this even if there's a threat of impeachment, I'm going to do the same thing, himself.

He didn't have to do that. But the talk of impeachment was already being heard—already being heard.

Let us say for a second that we're now at a point where the world knows that the president wants to do something, checks with Congress, Congress says no, and the president doesn't act, for whatever reason. What about Iran? The president said no nuclear weapons. The negotiation shows promise, then collapses, and we move again toward confrontation. Congress says no or Congress begins to have a long—typically Congress—drawn-out discussion suggesting both yes and no, depending on your point of view. The president has to make a decision. He can't wait on that. If he decides to go and attack without congressional approval, it's problematic, big-time.

Let us say, even more, Congress says no, and the president says, "I am committed. I am personally committed, and therefore this country is committed. We have to attack." Do we talk about impeachment?

This is an issue, it seems to me anyway, of such paramount importance, on an issue of war and peace, that we must begin to think seriously about a way for all of us to have a discussion about this issue and to come up with a formula that is acceptable to the majority of the American people and, even more important than that, acceptable to the people who make decisions about war and peace—namely, first the president and then the Congress and somewhere down the line, the American people.

Thank you all very much for listening and being kind enough. I'd be happy to take some of your questions.


QUESTION: James Starkman, amateur news junkie.

MARVIN KALB: We all are.

QUESTIONER: Just to depart a little bit to more stylistic journalistic issues, I wonder if I might ask that you possibly commit a journalistic heresy and rank in order the Sunday-style programs of news. I personally have been a longtime Meet the Press fan, but I veered toward Fareed Zakaria; Bob Schieffer had a fabulous program this last Sunday, and George Stephanopoulos, as well. I was wondering how you see the news presented on Sundays, now that you're a little bit out of the NBC orbit.

MARVIN KALB: I am not going to rank the programs. I will tell you that there are three kinds of programs that you now see on a Sunday. There are classic Meet the Press-type programs where you have a host eager to get information about the issue current at the time. The best thing for us in the old days was you knew that you were doing your job when the following day in The New York Times there was a news story based upon the interview that you had done. There's that kind of interview program.

There is then the typical politics-laden/journalism-in-second-place kind of gotcha, argumentative programming. That goes on all the time and increasingly is the most important feature of a Sunday interview program.

The third category is what you referred to with Fareed Zakaria, clearly a serious program, determined to examine one issue at great length. What we tend to forget is that there was a guy named Ted Koppel who did this on Nightline over 30 years ago. So it isn't anything new, but it is distinctive in today's journalistic environment, because we have all gone, in my judgment, down a few notches in the way in which we cover the news, in the way in which a network allows presentation to trump ratings.

I remember a time in broadcast journalism when ratings were not important, when our boss, a guy named Bill Paley, at CBS would say to us, "You guys cover the news. I've got Jack Benny to make money for me." But today, if you do not make money, you're out. So the determining feature today is how many eyeballs you attract. If you attract a lot of them, great, you're on, and if you attract fewer than the boss thinks you should, you're out.

QUESTION: Allen Young.

You mentioned the number of times that the Congress has declared war. But, of course, there are other instances—for example, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and resolutions before the invasion of Kuwait and before the invasion of Iraq—where Congress has authorized the president to take military action. Now, they didn't use the term "declaration of war," but they did authorize the president to take military action.

Why, in your view, does not that comport with the constitutional requirement for the declaration of war by Congress?

MARVIN KALB: Thank you very much. I appreciate that question.

An answer requires a definition of "declaration of war" and what it entails. The last time it was used, in December of 1941, Roosevelt did not go to Congress just to get a pat on the back. Roosevelt went to Congress to nationalize an effort to defeat the Japanese. In other words, a declaration of war is a cri de coeur. It is a cry from the heart to the entire nation that we are now committed to war and we've got to something about it and we've got to win.

It was a national effort. It was not a couple of guys banding together to do what it is that they thought was in the national interests of the country.

We have to bear a statistic in mind to understand this point. We now have an all-volunteer military. The all-volunteer military in the United States represents 0.6 percent of the American people. Ninety-nine-point-four percent of the American people live behind the shield provided by 0.6 percent. Those two worlds find themselves today with a deeper chasm between them.

When you look right now at the people who are in that 0.6 percent, when you go from one generation to the next, you find that the sons of the fathers in the service are now joining up. The kids who never joined up aren't joining up and don't even consider it their business—"The other guys will take care of our military stuff, the president will take care of it, the people up on the Hill will take care of it. It's not our business."

There has come, sadly, a separation in America of the masses who are protected by a very, very small minority of the people.

A declaration of war would mean that the 99.4 percent also has to get into the act. This is not a political statement, what I'm about to make. But when George W. Bush, right after 9/11, asked the Congress for support, he was going to do what he wanted to do anyway. And because of 9/11, the American people would have been prepared to do anything that the president wanted—any president. But George W. Bush said something that was representative of the mood of the country and of its attitude toward foreign crises. He told the American people to go shopping. Some of you may remember that speech. "You go shopping, and, in effect, I'll take care of this problem. You guys do your thing, and I'll take care of the war with my 0.6 percent."

That attitude is, to me, unacceptable. When you go to war, it should be, if not a national commitment, something awfully close to it, or else you don't go to war. Let the diplomats handle it. But if you are prepared to go to war, all of us should be involved in that effort.

That takes us into another thing, about national service, which is for probably another time.

QUESTION: Philip Schlussel.

Quite often we hear about the emergency powers of the president or the presidency. Are there emergency powers, and what are they?

MARVIN KALB: No, there are no emergency powers. There are the powers determined by a commander-in-chief to use as he sees fit, depending on the crisis at hand. On some occasions you may use 28,000 troops and go into Panama to get a drug-dealing leader named Noriega or you may send 500,000 people to take care of the problem in Kuwait. Whatever the challenge happens to be, you as commander-in-chief have authority.

Who told you? Where is it written? Nowhere. You have authority to do what it is that you consider right.

He is the commander-in-chief. He is the only nationally elected leader, and so you go with him. It's a perfectly understandable procedure. As the world has become more complicated and more dangerous, we hope that the president is smart enough to appreciate all of those subtleties.

QUESTION: First of all, thank you very much. It was a great presentation. John Hirsch, from the International Peace Institute.

I want to ask you to say whether you think there's a changing attitude to the use of force in either the presidency or the Congress. You started out with your points about how Johnson was going to be tough. Of course, at the end, he decided not to run again. The Vietnam War ended not in the way that was originally projected, and we're good buddies with the Vietnamese government today. What does it all mean, looking back 30 years ago? We have now lived through Iraq and Afghanistan.

How much of what you're focusing on is only sort of the formal issue of the relationship between the president and the Congress as against Americans, the Congress and the administration, thinking these issues through much more carefully?

MARVIN KALB: I said earlier at some point that the United States as a nation has a very large ego. I think that is an ego that over the last 10 to 15 years has been trimmed. When you trim a national ego, you also trim what it is that you feel the nation can do and what it can accomplish.

That leads to, by the way, a very strong split in our national politics between people who will continue to say that the United States is capable of doing anything at any time, don't mess with us—that general frame of mind—as opposed to people—and I think our incumbent president falls into this category—who are more prepared to trim our sails and to consider us as part of a larger peace cultivation effort rather than a George W. Bush, representing the belief that we are tall, we are strong, we are exceptional, and we can do what we want—the other school of thought not wishing to give up the "exceptional" label but nevertheless feeling that we are not really capable of doing everything that we want.

My own personal view is that this grew out of the Vietnam War. We've got to remember, the Vietnam War was the only war in American history that we flat-out lost. Korea you could say was an ugly tie. But Vietnam we lost. We were kicked out. Anyone who was there on July 30,1975 and watched Americans leaving the roof of the American embassy to climb on rope ladders to waiting helicopters to be taken off into the South China Sea—if you regard that as triumphal American diplomacy, forget it, kid, you were blown away. We were humiliated.

I spend a lot of time with military people. The military people will tell you that it took 10 to 15 years to develop, not just pieces that kill and not just training troops, but in your head the belief that we can do it. We're there now, but not all the way. The American soldier today, the leadership, the people who are field grade officers and up—they are totally different from when I was in the Army. It's a totally different phenomenon.

My captain or my major was a tough kid, probably from Texas, who wanted to show kids from New York the way you're supposed to be. Today the colonels are Princeton graduates. They read books. I mean, we have had sessions on The Road to War—probably a dozen sessions on that—called not by me, but called by them to discuss aspects of this problem, because they're the ones who have to go out and fight. Somebody has to tell them to go. We don't have a Napoleonic system yet. Somebody has to tell them. And that is the power of the president.

At a time when that war-making power is hazy, that focus has to be sharpened.

QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.

In your fascinating exposition, you gave as an example President George H. W. Bush writing to his family on New Year's Eve. He was prepared to go into Kuwait, but he was not prepared to spend a lot of time there. It was a limited operation. One of the sons became president as well. How much did he learn from his father? This is one of the intriguing questions. In Iraq, he was ready for an unlimited episode.

MARVIN KALB: The relationship of George H. W. Bush to his son George W. is one of those relationships that we're not really going to know about for a long time. What we do know is that people who worked for George H. W. strongly disagreed with the policy that George W. was following. One of those people, Scowcroft, actually did an article, as I recall, for The Wall Street Journal in which he articulated his disagreements with George W.

Does that reflect that Papa himself was opposed to what his son was doing? You can more or less read it into the tea leaves, but we're really not sure. And when you deal with family relationships, I think we all realize, keep your distance, because you really don't know.

But let me pick up the tail end of your question. Let me elaborate on that very briefly. George W. and his defense secretary were convinced that we do not have to go in for a long time, that we can do this very quickly. In fact, when we went into Afghanistan in the tail end of 2001, it was a very quick six-week operation. We used only 4,000 troops on the ground. We used the local people, to our advantage. We used our air power. We used sophisticated intelligence. It was a very well-run operation.

Where we blew it big-time was that, at a moment when the United States should have said we did it and we can go home now, we began to try to transform Iraqi politics, and we chose the wrong side. We decided that all of the people who were the bad guys before were really bad, and we cut them out of the operation entirely. When we did that, we destroyed the governmental substructure of Iraq. That then led to years and years of warfare.

By the way, in Iraq, which is a totally different story now—but it's sort of at the tail end of one—Iraq right now is in very bad shape, very bad shape. It's a rare thing when you pick up a newspaper and do not read that 80 people were killed today and a bomb going off here and there. The place is not in good shape at all. The military people will argue that if we had kept 15,000, 20,000 troops there, this would not be happening. We don't know that. But it's possible. That's one of these things that history will unveil eventually.

QUESTION: Anthony Faillace.

Does the president have too much power in the system? If so, how exactly would you constrain his power? Is the Obama model of going to Congress for something such as the Syria strike the way of the future, in your judgment?

MARVIN KALB: The answer to your first question is, yes, I believe that the president does have too much power. But at the same time, where else can you go? He is the president. We don't have a countervailing force.

When the president went to Congress, that was not what he wanted to do. He went there because he felt suddenly that the floor under him was collapsing and that his support wasn't there. He was looking for support. He thought, misled by some of the Democrats in Congress into believing it, that the Congress would support him and his Syria plans. They didn't. That's when Putin rode to the rescue.

But where do you turn? In the Constitution as set up, there's only one other place, and that's Congress. That's my essential point. If there were a new way, a new guideline, a new understanding of the way in which you go to war, we would all be much, much better off. Then we would not be in a position of allowing, in effect, the adversary to determine our response to a certain challenge. We would know in advance how we're going to deal with something. Then you deal with it, depending on what the challenge happens to be.

But at this particular point we don't have that. That's why we are trapped with words like "commitment" and "we believe" and "the president is understood to feel." All this phraseology covers up the failure of the system to come in with a clean, clear understanding of ways in which this country goes to war. It was always assumed, when the language of the Constitution was written, that we're all going to be on the same page.

I was a Moscow correspondent during the Cold War. I served there for five years. I say this not with pride at all—as a matter of fact, with a little bit of embarrassment now—but as a CBS correspondent in Moscow during the Cuban missile crisis, I shared with the embassy information that I picked up along the way, and they gave me information that I could not get otherwise. Did they give me what I wanted? No, not at all. They gave me what they wanted me to put out. I'm aware of that.

Why did I share my stuff? Because I felt we were all in it together, that the American journalists and the American government didn't want the communists to win. That's what it comes down to.

I repeat, I say that with some embarrassment, because that's not pure journalism.

Right now, it seems as if journalists get a special kind of ego boost out of tricking the government and finding the government in some kind of bad play. When the government deserves it, go to it. But it doesn't deserve it as often as it gets it.

I did a piece recently in which I said that Obama bashing has become the principal pastime in Washington. The president deserves bashing in some areas, but not in all areas. That is where we are today.

That function of journalism, to get back to the first question, has changed. I think the need, when you deal with war, for something of greater clarity comes across much more forcefully to me than ever.

QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.

I did see an interview with George W. Bush in which he was asked about whether or not he had talked to his father about Iraq before the war, and he said that he had not.

But I can't help being struck by your canvas of this whole period and your anecdote about Lyndon Johnson being tough. So much of this was driven by domestic political considerations. Republicans, tough; Democrats were just as tough, but people don't seem to realize that. This went on for quite a long time.

I would like your comments about the Syria situation in this context. For the first time, at least that I can recall, you had people on both sides of the aisle taking both positions. You had Alan Grayson and Rand Paul—that's quite a span—saying that they were very much against this. It seems to me at least, in listening and digesting public opinion and the expression of the people in the streets, it's not so much that we're tired of commitment, involvement, issues of credibility. We just want to know what we are trying to accomplish here and how. That question, except for maybe with George H. W. Bush in 1990, has never been answered in advance of these kinds of—

MARVIN KALB: It's a wonderful question. The George H. W. Bush philosophy was born of something called the Powell Doctrine. Powell was the chief of the Joint Chiefs and was a national security advisor and a very bright general. Powell believed, based on the Vietnam experience, that if the United States goes to war, it has to have a clear military objective: Down the road, that's what I want to accomplish. I want to put the number of troops in that can take care of that problem, I want to have popular support, and I want to have an exit strategy. I want to go in, I want to accomplish it, and I want to get out.

That is what he said is the military's role. It's not there to build schools. It's a very important point.

George H. W. bought into that completely. That was, in a sense, the beauty of the Kuwait operation. We went in with vastly more troops than we needed, because Powell wanted to overwhelm the enemy. And he did. It was a 100-hour war. George H. W. then had before him the option of going up to Baghdad and taking care of the bad guy. People like Scowcroft said to him, "Mr. President, if you go up there, I can tell you right now, from the military point of view, we can do that. That's not hard. But once we get there, what do we do? Do we become the government? Who are the good guys we deal with? We couldn't tell you." And Bush wisely said, "We're not going."

Right now that Powell Doctrine, which you were alluding to, is something that exists in the far-out corners of the Washington strategic mind. We have a lot of problems until we get to that. Those problems are tied up with many of the things we have talked about this morning—also, though, picking up one of your points too, with our politics.

Our politics today are in a most unusual alignment. We are up the creek at the moment. If we are optimists, we may, between now and October 17, actually have a solution. You know what that solution would be? We get another two or three months until we argue the same thing again.

We are tied up in knots, is what is happening. If the world were not as screwed up as it is, if there were a force out there like the old Soviet Union, this is the moment to move against us. But there is no such force. Everyone is in a state of some chaos.

So we still remain exceptional, but we're not as exceptional as we used to be. As I wrote here, the gold does not glitter as once it did.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you so much.

MARVIN KALB: You're very welcome. Thank you.

You may also like

JUN 14, 2024 Article

A Conversation with Carnegie Ethics Fellow Sophie Flint

This interview series profiles members of the inaugural Carnegie Ethics Fellows cohort. This discussion features Sophie Flint, a a project manager for Strategic Resource Group.

Left to Right: Nikolas Gvosdev, Tatiana Serafin, Peter Goodman. CREDIT: Noha Mahmoud.

JUN 13, 2024 Podcast

How the World Ran Out of Everything, with Peter S. Goodman

In the final "Doorstep" podcast, "New York Times" reporter Peter Goodman discusses how geopolitics is connected to the goods that end up on our doorstep.

JUN 4, 2024 Article

Space-Based Data Risks to Refugee Populations

Space-based data is quite useful for observing environmental conditions, but Zhanna Malekos Smith writes that it also raises privacy concerns for vulnerable populations.

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation