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The Road to War

Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed


Marvin Kalb


Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2013

Hardcover. xi+287 p. ISBN 978-0815724933. $29.95


Reviewed by Laura Considine

University of Leeds


In The Road to War : Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed, Marvin Kalb examines the increasing and unprecedented power of the modern US president in the realms of foreign policy and national security. Kalb, a veteran CBS and NBC journalist, Harvard professor and Brookings Institution scholar, highlights the extent to which foreign policy-making has become concentrated in the president since World War II and the ease with which modern presidents have been able to commit the United States to military action with little Congressional oversight. While the constitutional power to declare war rests with Congress, Kalb points out that the United States has not formally declared war since World War II; instead successive presidents have engaged in military actions based on presidential commitments supported by congressional resolutions or through the appropriations process. Kalb questions this concentration of power and lack of oversight in the conduct of foreign policy and military action. Further, he interrogates the nature and value of a presidential commitment and what it means for America’s conduct of foreign policy and relationship with its allies.

This is a worthwhile contribution, made pertinent once again by President Obama’s recent military action in Syria and Iraq against IS and the current debate over the status of congressional authorization for these actions. Kalb underpins his point on the power of the ‘word of the president-in-power’ [6] with a series of historical studies of presidential military ventures during the Cold War. These studies show how, from Truman’s engagement in Korea to the escalation of the war in Vietnam, military action has increasingly been based on a series of presidential commitments. With these cases, Kalb illustrates how the overwhelming context of the Cold War led to a shift in power to the executive office and a general lack of Congressional pushback and oversight (with certain exceptions, including the War Powers Resolution of 1973).


This is where the book is at its strongest. While Korea is given only cursory treatment, Kalb, a journalist in the Vietnam era and one who was placed on Nixon’s notorious ‘enemies list’, gives a clear account of US engagement with and ultimate withdrawal from Vietnam over the terms of several presidencies. While not offering anything significant that is new to those familiar with the existing scholarship on the era, this section uses Kalb’s extensive experience and contacts to give an engaging interpretation of US entry into a conflict that would result in tens of thousands of US deaths and a divided country, based on a sequence of public presidential commitments and acts of rhetoric.


Kalb then uses this set of historical cases to argue that the reliance on presidential commitments as a basis for conducting foreign policy has had a deleterious effect on the US–Israel relationship and the potential for peace in the Middle East. Contrasting the US pledges to Israel with the level of presidential commitments to allies in East Asia and the level of commitment to the Vietnam War, Kalb argues that the US’s support of Israel, ‘so central to American foreign policy in the Middle East’ [199], is based only on private presidential correspondence, only on the word of the US president. Therefore, Israel must live with a degree of uncertainty as to whether US presidents will honor commitments given in so informal and non-binding a manner. This point is reinforced by another historical case, of President Johnson reneging on an earlier Eisenhower assurance for guaranteed Israeli free passage in the Straits of Tiran given after the Suez Crisis in 1957, which, Kalb argues, then led to the 1967 Six Day War. Since then, Israel has lived with the ‘smell of possible betrayal’ [216] in its relationship with the United States. A mutual defence treaty, according to Kalb, would institutionalise the US–Israel relationship and avoid the potential that a US president might ‘abandon’ Israel [242].


This argument lacks plausibility and is founded on several assumptions about both key actors that go unquestioned. Kalb briefly mentions other factors that might be inhibiting progress towards peace in the Middle East, for example the continuing practice of Israeli settlements, [7], but then dismisses these as unworthy of further consideration. The study also presumes that US and Israeli interests are synonymous, something that has been recently questioned (by, for example, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer). Kalb places sole control over US foreign policy in the hands of the president, who exercises ‘exceptional powers’ [243] in these areas. This may well be true and the move to an executive foreign policy has been well documented, but the interpretation of this shift in power provided here does not fully account for a dense web of institutional constraints, public pressures, foreign policy norms and influential pressure groups in a way that simplifies the situation. Kalb writes polemically, ending with a call for ‘a historic agreement for a defense treaty between two close allies’ [243], and his choice of language in this part of the book at times reveals his feelings about this matter, but his argument is ultimately unpersuasive and rests on a set of suppositions that lack a firm basis in scholarship.


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