When it comes to war, veteran reporter and commentator Marvin Kalb wants to turn back the clock.
“When a president goes to war, he ought to take the country with him. That means he ought to take the Congress with him.”
Franklin Roosevelt was the last president to ask Congress for a declaration of war. Since then, Congress has ceded its war-declaring powers to the executive, leaving the people’s representatives to deal with such issues hastily in “urgent emergency sessions,” as the country is witnessing following President Barack Obama’s call for a military strike on Syria, he said.
Kalb, whose recent book, The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed, looks at the history of modern American war making, spoke to WJW before Obama’s national address on Syria on Tuesday.
Issues of war “require time for reflection and debate, but not in a pressure-cooker environment,” he said. “The best way would be for Congress to assume its responsibility in war and always be abreast of foreign policy initiatives.” That way it could act “in a natural, responsible way.”
Kalb, a nonresident senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, recalls the series of monthlong sessions that Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.) held in the Foreign Relations Committee in the 1960s over America’s “deepening involvement in Vietnam, the possibility of a door to China and the linkage of the two.” Those sessions are the gold standard for congressional responsibility now abandoned because of the demands of the news cycle and fundraising.
Asked about AIPAC lobbying members of Congress in favor of a U.S. attack on Syria, Kalb said the group, which usually focuses on strengthening aid for Israel, “has a perfect right to lobby on behalf of any cause. My concern would be if AIPAC is doing it at the behest of the U.S. government.”
Some observers believe that it is. Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg wrote, “It seems obvious that the president’s national-security team sincerely believed the hype about AIPAC — that it could move members of Congress to do things they otherwise wouldn’t do — and therefore drafted the group, along with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to aid in the Sisyphean task before them.”
Kalb said AIPAC’s involvement could backfire, because it could “discourage people who might support the president [on Syria] because of their opposition to AIPAC or Israeli policy. Maybe if AIPAC wasn’t pushing they would support the president.”
Israel is watching how America handles Syria for hints of how it might handle Iran, if its nuclear drive succeeds.
“The feeling among Israeli leaders is that they love the U.S. but at the end of the day they know” they will have to protect themselves. “They fear a presidential betrayal, even if unintended.”
Presidents come and go, Kalb wrote in The Road to War. The solution is a mutual defense treaty between the U.S. and Israel.
“The time has come to institutionalize the U.S.-Israeli relationship so that everything does not rest any longer on the decisions of one person,” he wrote.