The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed

Brookings Institution Press
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Not since Pearl Harbor has an American president gone to Congress to request a declaration of war. Nevertheless, since then, one president after another, from Truman to Obama, has ordered American troops into wars all over the world. From Korea to Vietnam, Panama to Grenada, Lebanon to Bosnia, Afghanistan to Iraq—why have presidents sidestepped declarations of war? Marvin Kalb, former chief diplomatic correspondent for CBS and NBC News, explores this key question in his thirteenth book about the presidency and U.S. foreign policy.

Instead of a declaration of war, presidents have justified their war-making powers by citing "commitments," private and public, made by former presidents. Many of these commitments have been honored, but some betrayed. Surprisingly, given the tight U.S.-Israeli relationship, Israeli leaders feel that at times they have been betrayed by American presidents. Is it time for a negotiated defense treaty between the United States and Israel as a way of substituting for a string of secret presidential commitments?

From Israel to Vietnam, presidential commitments have proven to be tricky and dangerous. For example, one president after another committed the United States to the defense of South Vietnam, often without explanation. Over the years, these commitments mushroomed into national policy, leading to a war costing 58,000 American lives. Few in Congress or the media chose to question the war's provenance or legitimacy, until it was too late. No president saw the need for a declaration of war, considering one to be old-fashioned.

The word of a president can morph into a national commitment. It can become the functional equivalent of a declaration of war. Therefore, whenever a president "commits"the United States to a policy or course of action with, or increasingly without, congressional approval, watch out—the White House may be setting the nation on a road toward war.

The Road to War was a 2013 Foreword Reviews honorable mention in the subject of War & Military.

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About the author

Marvin Kalb is the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice (Emeritus) at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and founding director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. He also serves as a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution in Foreign Policy Studies. His distinguished journalism career covers thirty years of award-winning reporting and commentary for CBS and NBC News, including stints as bureau chief in Moscow and host of Meet the Press. His twelve previous books include Haunting Legacy (Brookings Press, 2012), The Nixon Memo (University of Chicago) and Kissinger (Little Brown). He hosts the Kalb Report at the National Press Club.

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Publisher
Brookings Institution Press
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Published on
May 9, 2013
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Pages
287
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ISBN
9780815724438
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Language
English
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Genres
History / Military / Strategy
History / United States / General
Political Science / American Government / Executive Branch
Political Science / Security (National & International)
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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“What did the president know and when did he know it?” takes on a whole new meaning in Presidents and Political Thought. Though political philosophy is sometimes considered to be dry and abstract, many of our presidents have found usable ideas embedded within it. In this first comparative study of presidents and political theory, David Siemers examines how some of them have applied this specialized knowledge to their job. Presidents and Political Thought explores the connection between philosophy and practical politics through a study of six American chief executives: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Bill Clinton. Writing at the intersection of politics, history, and philosophy, Siemers combines his extensive understanding of political philosophy with careful research and analysis of individual presidents to produce provocative and astute judgments about how their understanding of political theory affected their performance. Each chapter examines a particular president’s attitude about political theory, the political theorists he read and admired, and the ways in which he applied theory in his activities as president. Viewing presidents through the lens of political theory enables Siemers to conclude that Madison and Adams have been significantly underrated. Wilson is thought to have abandoned his theoretical viewpoint as president, but actually, he just possessed an unorthodox interpretation of his favorite thinker, Edmund Burke. Often thought to be so pragmatic or opportunistic that they lacked any convictions, FDR and Clinton gained their orientations to politics from political theory. These and other insights suggest that we cannot understand these presidencies without being more aware of the ideas the presidents brought to the office. Siemers’s study takes on special relevance as the United States experiences regime change and a possible party realignment because, as he notes, Barack Obama has read and learned from political theory, too. Avoiding much of the jargon that often accompanies political theory, this book demonstrates the relevance of political theory in the real world, chronicling both the challenges and potentially rich payoffs when presidents conceive of politics not just as a way to reward friends and punish enemies, but as a means to realize principles.
On April 4, 1864, Abraham Lincoln made a shocking admission about his presidency during the Civil War. "I claim not to have controlled events," he wrote in a letter, "but confess plainly that events have controlled me." Lincoln's words carry an invaluable lesson for wartime presidents, writes Andrew J. Polsky in this seminal book. As Polsky shows, when commanders-in-chief do try to control wartime events, more often than not they fail utterly. In Elusive Victories, Polsky provides a fascinating study of six wartime presidents, drawing larger lessons about the limits of the power of the White House during armed conflict. He examines, in turn, Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, showing how each gravely overestimated his power as commander-in-chief. In each case, these presidents' resources did not match the key challenges that recur from war to war. Both Lincoln and Johnson intervened in military operations, giving orders to specific units; yet both struggled with the rising unpopularity of their conflicts. Both Wilson and Bush entered hostilities with idealistic agendas for the aftermath, yet found themselves helpless to enact them. With insight and clarity, Polsky identifies overarching issues that will inform current and future policymakers. The single most important dynamic, he writes, is the erosion of a president's freedom of action. Each decision propels him down a path from which he cannot turn back. When George W. Bush rejected the idea of invading Iraq with 400,000 troops, he could not send such a force two years later as the insurgency spread. In the final chapter, Polsky examines Barack Obama's options in light of these conclusions, and considers how the experiences of the past might inform the world we face now. Elusive Victories is the first book to provide a comprehensive account of presidential leadership during wartime, highlighting the key dangers that presidents have ignored at their peril.
Americans are a nation-building people, and in Liberty’s Surest Guardian, Jeremi Suri—Nobel Fellow and leading light in the next generation of policy makers—looks to America’s history to see both what it has to offer failed states around the world and what it should avoid. Far from being cold imperialists, Americans have earnestly attempted to export their invention of representative government. We have had successes (Reconstruction after the American Civil War, the Philippines, Western Europe) and failures (Vietnam), and we can learn a good deal from both.

Nation-building is in America’s DNA. It dates back to the days of the American Revolution, when the founding fathers invented the concept of popular sovereignty—the idea that you cannot have a national government without a collective will. The framers of the Constitution initiated a policy of cautious nation-building, hoping not to conquer other countries, but to build a world of stable, self-governed societies that would support America’s way of life. Yetno other country has created more problems for itself and for others by intervening in distant lands and pursuing impractical changes.

Nation-building can work only when local citizens “own it,” and do not feel it is forced upon them. There is no one way to spread this idea successfully, but Suri has mined more than two hundred years of American policy in order to explain the five “P”s of nation-building:

PARTNERS: Nation-building always requires partners; there must be communication between people on the ground and people in distant government offices.

PROCESS: Human societies do not follow formulas. Nation-building is a process which does not produce clear, quick results.

PROBLEM-SOLVING: Leadership must start small, addressing basic problems. Public trust during a period of occupation emerges from the fulfillment of basic needs.

PURPOSE: Small beginnings must serve larger purposes. Citizens must see the value in what they’re doing.

PEOPLE: Nation-building is about people. Large forces do not move history. People move history.

Our actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya will have a dramatic impact on international stability. Jeremi Suri, provocative historian and one of Smithsonian magazine’s “Top Young Innovators,” takes on the idea of American exceptionalism and turns it into a playbook for President Obama over the next, vital few years.
One of the most contentious issues in contemporary foreign policy—especially in the United States—is the use of military force to intervene in the domestic affairs of other states. Some military interventions explicitly try to transform the domestic institutions of the states they target; others do not, instead attempting only to reverse foreign policies or resolve disputes without trying to reshape the internal landscape of the target state. In Leaders at War, Elizabeth N. Saunders provides a framework for understanding when and why great powers seek to transform foreign institutions and societies through military interventions. She highlights a crucial but often-overlooked factor in international relations: the role of individual leaders.

Saunders argues that leaders' threat perceptions—specifically, whether they believe that threats ultimately originate from the internal characteristics of other states—influence both the decision to intervene and the choice of intervention strategy. These perceptions affect the degree to which leaders use intervention to remake the domestic institutions of target states. Using archival and historical sources, Saunders concentrates on U.S. military interventions during the Cold War, focusing on the presidencies of Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. After demonstrating the importance of leaders in this period, she also explores the theory's applicability to other historical and contemporary settings including the post–Cold War period and the war in Iraq.

Shortly after assuming office in January 2017, President Donald Trump accused the press of being an “enemy of the American people.” Attacks on the media had been a hallmark of Trump’s presidential campaign, but this charge marked a dramatic turning point: language like this ventured into dangerous territory. Twentieth-century dictators—notably, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao—had all denounced their critics, especially the press, as “enemies of the people.” Their goal was to delegitimize the work of the press as “fake news” and create confusion in the public mind about what’s real and what isn’t; what can be trusted and what can’t be.

That, it seems, is also Trump’s goal. In Enemy of the People, Marvin Kalb, an award-winning American journalist with more than six decades of experience both as a journalist and media observer, writes with passion about why we should fear for the future of American democracy because of the unrelenting attacks by the Trump administration on the press.

As his new book shows, the press has been a bulwark in the defense of democracy. Kalb writes about Edward R. Murrow’s courageous reporting on Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “red scare” theatrics in the early 1950s, which led to McCarthy’s demise. He reminds us of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting in the early 1970s that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation.

Today, because of revolutionary changes in journalism, no Murrow is ready at the battlements. Journalism has been severely weakened. Yet, without a virile, strong press, democracy is in peril.

Kalb’s book is a frightening indictment of President Trump’s efforts to delegitimize the American press—and put the future of our democracy in question.

The real collusion in the 2016 election was not between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. It was between the Clinton campaign and the Obama administration.

The media–Democrat “collusion narrative,” which paints Donald Trump as cat’s paw of Russia, is a studiously crafted illusion.

Despite Clinton’s commanding lead in the polls, hyper-partisan intelligence officials decided they needed an “insurance policy” against a Trump presidency. Thus was born the collusion narrative, built on an anonymously sourced “dossier,” secretly underwritten by the Clinton campaign and compiled by a former British spy. Though acknowledged to be “salacious and unverified” at the FBI’s highest level, the dossier was used to build a counterintelligence investigation against Trump’s campaign.

Miraculously, Trump won anyway. But his political opponents refused to accept the voters’ decision. Their collusion narrative was now peddled relentlessly by political operatives, intelligence agents, Justice Department officials, and media ideologues—the vanguard of the “Trump Resistance.” Through secret surveillance, high-level intelligence leaking, and tireless news coverage, the public was led to believe that Trump conspired with Russia to steal the election.

Not one to sit passively through an onslaught, President Trump fought back in his tumultuous way. Matters came to a head when he fired his FBI director, who had given explosive House testimony suggesting the president was a criminal suspect, despite privately assuring Trump otherwise. The resulting firestorm of partisan protest cowed the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel, whose seemingly limitless investigation bedeviled the administration for two years.

Yet as months passed, concrete evidence of collusion failed to materialize. Was the collusion narrative an elaborate fraud? And if so, choreographed by whom? Against media–Democrat caterwauling, a doughty group of lawmakers forced a shift in the spotlight from Trump to his investigators and accusers. This has exposed the depth of politicization within American law-enforcement and intelligence agencies. It is now clear that the institutions on which our nation depends for objective policing and clear-eyed analysis injected themselves scandalously into the divisive politics of the 2016 election.

They failed to forge a new Clinton administration. Will they succeed in bringing down President Trump?
Marvin Kalb, a former journalist and Harvard professor, traces how the Crimea of Catherine the Great became a global tinder box. The world was stunned when Vladimir Putin invaded and seized Crimea in March 2014. In the weeks that followed, pro-Russian rebels staged uprisings in southeastern Ukraine. The United States and its Western allies immediately imposed strict sanctions on Russia and whenever possible tried to isolate it diplomatically.

This sharp deterioration in East-West relations has raised basic questions about Putin's provocative policies and the future of Russia and Ukraine. Marvin Kalb, who wrote commentaries for Edward R. Murrow before becoming CBS News' Moscow bureau chief in the late 1950's, and who also served as a translator and junior press officer at the US Embassy in Moscow, argues that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Putin did not "suddenly" decide to invade Crimea. He had been waiting for the right moment ever since disgruntled Ukrainians rose in revolt against his pro-Russian regime in Kiev's Maidan Square. These demonstrations led Putin to conclude that Ukraine's opposition constituted an existential threat to Russia.

Imperial Gamble examines how Putin reached that conclusion by taking a critical look at the recent political history of post-Soviet Russia. It also journeys deep into Russian and Ukrainian history to explain what keeps them together and yet at the same time drives them apart.

Kalb believes that the post-cold war world hangs today on the resolution of the Ukraine crisis. So long as it is treated as a problem to be resolved by Russia, on the one side, and the United States and Europe, on the other, it will remain a danger zone with global consequences. The only sensible solution lies in both Russia and Ukraine recognizing that their futures are irrevocably linked by geography, power, politics, and the history that Kalb brings to life in Imperial Gamble.

A chronicle of the year that changed Soviet Russia—and molded the future path of one of America's pre-eminent diplomatic correspondents

1956 was an extraordinary year in modern Russian history. It was called “the year of the thaw”—a time when Stalin’s dark legacy of dictatorship died in February only to be reborn later that December. This historic arc from rising hope to crushing despair opened with a speech by Nikita Khrushchev, then the unpredictable leader of the Soviet Union. He astounded everyone by denouncing the one figure who, up to that time, had been hailed as a “genius,” a wizard of communism—Josef Stalin himself. Now, suddenly, this once unassailable god was being portrayed as a “madman” whose idiosyncratic rule had seriously undermined communism and endangered the Soviet state.

This amazing switch from hero to villain lifted a heavy overcoat of fear from the backs of ordinary Russians. It also quickly led to anti-communist uprisings in Eastern Europe, none more bloody and challenging than the one in Hungary, which Soviet troops crushed at year’s end.

Marvin Kalb, then a young diplomatic attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, observed this tumultuous year that foretold the end of Soviet communism three decades later. Fluent in Russian, a doctoral candidate at Harvard, he went where few other foreigners would dare go, listening to Russian students secretly attack communism and threaten rebellion against the Soviet system, traveling from one end of a changing country to the other and, thanks to his diplomatic position, meeting and talking with Khrushchev, who playfully nicknamed him Peter the Great.

In this, his fifteenth book, Kalb writes a fascinating eyewitness account of a superpower in upheaval and of a people yearning for an end to dictatorship.

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