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Diminishing Checks and Balances for U.S. Commanders in Chief Considering War

July 24, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
The last official declaration of war from the U.S. Congress was in 1941, but the United States has been engaged in frequent military conflict since then. Ray Suarez sits down with Marvin Kalb to discuss the evolving power of the president in his book "The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed."
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, presidents who send troops into conflicts around the world, sidestepping Congress’ role. That’s the subject of a new book.

Ray Suarez talked with its author.

RAY SUAREZ: The Constitution establishes the president of the United States as the commander in chief of the nation’s armed forces, but the power to make war is subject to the checks and balances found throughout the Constitution.

The president asks Congress to declare war, and it’s congressional approval that clears the way for a state of war. But declarations of war are rare, and American forces have seen plenty of combat without them on the orders of the president.

Veteran journalist and teacher Marvin Kalb has taken a look at the evolving power of the president to commit the country to action around the world. His new book is called “The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed.”

It’s great to have you here.

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MARVIN KALB, author, “The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed”: Thank you, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: And, as I was thinking about it as I was reading the book, the United States has been actively militarily engaged in a lot of places in the last 60 years without a declaration of war.

MARVIN KALB: Without a declaration, which has now become essentially an antique, a rare remembrance of former times.

The last one was on Dec. 8, 1941, when Roosevelt went to the Congress after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the day before, and he said, “I need a declaration of war.” And they gave it to him within a couple of days.

There were four other times in American history when that happened. But at no time since 1941 has the president ever gone to Congress and asked for a declaration.

RAY SUAREZ: And Vietnam is the centerpiece of your book. And you illustrate how successive presidents were able to escalate that conflict really on their own writ, without having to ask Congress much of anything.

MARVIN KALB: Exactly.

What was happening was that from Harry Truman right on to Richard Nixon, we were all living under the shadow of the Cold War. And the Cold War essentially set the terms under which a president functioned.

So the president could ask for something, say, we’re in the middle of the Cold War, the Soviet Union is just around the corner, so watch your step, and the Congress — no one in Congress was going to stand up against a president.

When the issue was war against communism and now the issue war against terrorism, and nobody in Congress is really standing up to the president.

What I found in this book is that one president after another ever since World War II can lead the country into war relatively easily. No one is standing up. There are no checks and balances. The president does it on his own.

RAY SUAREZ: But for all the questions about whether the request for a declaration of war would constrain a president, wouldn’t it also give him cover, the kind of support that it is necessary to have when you’re leading the country into this kind of venture?

MARVIN KALB: Absolutely.

But, at this particular point, the president doesn’t feel that he needs cover. Jim Webb, the senator, retired senator from Virginia, did a recent article in which he said that the Congress has become irrelevant in the making and executing of American foreign policy.

I have certainly found that to be the case. The congressmen and the senators are very good on issues like Benghazi, but when it comes to an issue like declaring war, they say, let the president do it. Why do I have to bear responsibility for that? It takes too much time away from fund-raising. I have to answer to my constituents.

And right now, with the Congress out of the picture and the president having essentially his own army, like the European monarchs of old — they had their own army — the president can now go into a war without anybody saying anything. Maybe an editorial writer will say something, but that’s about it.

RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned that the Cold War and then the war on terror strengthened the president’s hand when he wants to make war.

MARVIN KALB: Yes. Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: Permanently? Or is this a presidential power that, with events, may wax or wane in coming decades?

MARVIN KALB: It’s a very good question.

And the only sense I have right now is that the evidence over the last 30, 40 years suggests that we’re moving in that direction and are likely to continue to move in that direction.

One of the reasons that this book, by the way, has been on my mind to write for 40 years now because of one overriding concern. And that is when too much power rests in the hands of the president, even the president, I think we’re all in trouble.

The whole idea, as you said at the very beginning, was checks and balances. And, increasingly, with the Congress abdicating its responsibility, with the president having his own army, in effect, and with the media more or less benignly going along with what’s happening, you end up with the president having all of the power to do whatever he wants.

If he, tomorrow morning, decides we’re going to put — we’re going to go into an attack in Iran, who would stop him? No one. You would just learn about it and report it.

RAY SUAREZ: And that’s the thing. After Dec. 8, 1941, FDR had a united nation and a united government behind him as a result of that war declaration.

MARVIN KALB: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: And look at the wars, the invasions, the various things that have happened in the recent decades, often leading presidents down very bad roads because they were going it alone.

MARVIN KALB: Absolutely.

And this is one of the things that’s so terribly important. We are fighting totally different kinds of war. So if you put this proposition to the president now, who’s a very intelligent man, and say, Mr. President, are you really comfortable with this arrangement, he’d say no. I’m positive he’d say no.

But everything yields power to him. When you live in a world that is so unpredictable, so uncertain, with anything happening the next morning, you have to turn to somebody. And the American people at this point must turn to the president. There is no one else.

The Congress has said goodbye, and the Army is there to do what the president wants as commander in chief. He is the boss. Zbig Brzezinski told me in the course of researching this — he said, the president makes the key decision, and after that, it is the policy of the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: The book is “The Road to War.”

Marvin Kalb, great to see you.

MARVIN KALB: Thank you, sir.