Interview with Marvin Kalb: The Road to War, Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed

I could not have timed my chat with Marvin Kalb220px-Marvin_Kalb better. On Sunday, before talking about cyber hate for the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s 20th Anniversary Tour in Chicago, Kalb and I discussed his most recent book, The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed (Brookings Institution Press 2013). The timing was auspicious not just because the book had come out days before but because at least 40% of the nation was reeling from learning about the most recent abuse of Executive power:  the NSA’s PRISM program and leaked FISA court Verizon order.

Before I recount some of the highlights of our conversation, I wanted to begin with a wonderful and incredibly apt description of Kalb written by a UPI reporter:

[Kalb] is the senior statesman of U.S. media. Tall, handsome, brilliant, unfailingly courteous, Marvin Kalb looks and acts more like a senior statesman than the chief diplomatic correspondent he was for CBS News and NBC over 30 years when these networks cared about world news. Now these media organizations still bill themselves as world news networks but, most nights, forget about the rest of the world.

Following his prize-studded reportorial career, Kalb became the first director of journalism’s school of higher learning at Harvard — the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. Now, still the profession’s senior statesman, he runs the center’s Washington office and hosts “The Kalb Report.” The author of two best-selling novels and a book titled, “One Scandalous Story: Clinton, Lewinsky and 13 days That Transformed American Journalism,” Kalb’s 13th book — his best — excoriates Congress for relinquishing its constitutional obligation to declare war.

The U.S. News and World Report’s Jamie Stiehm describes Kalb’s new book as “an elegantseg3_ssa_3 synthesis of how easy, too easy, it has become for an American president, any American president, to go to war” with Congress “ceding its rightful role in declaring war and tends to go along with the man in the White House.” Kalb’s book argues that so much power should not be concentrated in the President.

Here are some highlights from our conversation:

DC: Why has it been so easy for the Executive Branch to ignore the core constitutional guarantee that Congress declare war?

MK: We have a system of law undergirding Presidential authority to go to war — Congressional declaration of War and the power of the purse — yet it has been consistently ceded to the President. When I covered Vietnam in 1968, we had 500,000 troops on the ground. Who gave the President the authority to do so? I am a great believer of law, but if it is ignored with impunity, to whom do we turn?

DC: How did we get to that state of affairs–the President doing what he wants without check? Are things much different in light of recent revelations of our unsanctioned domestic intelligence apparatus?

MK: What we are witnessing this week stands as a confirmation of what we have ben seeing–unchecked Presidential power in the name of war time. In the Korea and Vietnam wars, one President after another made unchecked decisions and no one blew the whistle, most significantly Congress. Congress was successfully pressured to cede its power to the Executive Branch. For instance, only two Senators voted “no” for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. When one of those senators, Senator Morse, saw President Johnson, the President put his arm around the Senator and said “Wayne, you are a good American. We do not want to hurt the troops.” Johnson wielded his power through persuasion and it worked–Congressional resistance was vanishingly small.

DC: What do you think of this week’s revelations about PRISM and the Verizon order?

MK: In important ways, I thought that we beat Big Brother when we prevailed in the Cold War. With the indiscriminate collection and analysis of all Verizon users’ telephony metadata (including who we called, where we were, and the inevitable revelation of sensitive information given the answer to the “who” question), we have become what we most fear–executive branch conducting surveillance over ordinary citizens in increasingly intrusive ways.

DC: In your book, you talk about Presidential commitments betrayed. Tell me a little about that.

MK: With Israel, for instance, Presidents have made commitments to defend that country in private letters. Of course, those letters were not binding, in the sense of a treaty. In 1957, Eisenhower told Ben Gurion that the U.S. would help Israel if Arabs used force to close the Gulf of Akaba. That scenario indeed arose in 1967. But Johnson said to the Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban that I would love to help you but I’m in the middle of Vietnam and the Great Society and cannot help you. What is the legal value of the initial letter? How can Presidents have so much power and discretion to make such commitments, which are then betrayed, without any check?

MK: Along the same lines, I have long been having a conversation with Ted Koppel about whether we could ever foresee totalitarianism in the U.S. Koppel thought it was possible, given what happened in Germany with the rise of Hitler. I, on the other hand, retained my, some might say, pollyanna view that totalitarianism was not possible. But now I am feeling far more pessimistic.

DC: What did you think about the AP revelations?

MK: That too provided more evidence that we have become what we fought so hard against in the Cold War–abusive, unchecked executive power. It reminded me of my response to being on Nixon’s Enemies List. When I was at CBS covering Vietnam, I was followed, investigated, and watched. For instance, the government followed me when I covered the Paris peace talks. The IRS investigated me. When I learned about what was going on, my initial response was feeling hurt. How could the country for which I served in the Army do this to me? Next, my emotions turned into outrage, and rightfully so. We see this in the government assertion that the Fox reporter was a co-conspirator in a criminal conspiracy for talking to his sources. As in the past, we need to urge Congress to provide a meaningful check on the President’s exercise of overreaching–it cannot fail in that task as before. And we too need to question what is going on and fight against it.

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1 Response

  1. Kalb is correct, I think, on many counts, but betraying defense commitments to Israel? Oh my! Cf.: And all of that in spite of what we learn in books like this: Zeev Maoz, Defending the Holy Land: A Critical Analysis of Israel’s Security and Foreign Policy (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2006).