The Thin Red Line

War and Peace: What Are Presidential Promises Good For?

Every U.S. president has made promises to other nations. But in this excerpt of The Road to War, Marvin Kalb notes that, as in our past commitments to Israel and South Korea, whether President Obama will honor or betray his promises can mean war or peace in places like Iran and Syria.

Over the years, presidential commitments have come in different shapes and sizes, suggesting honor and integrity, strength and determination, the word of a president backed by the military power of the United States. No trifling matter, in diplomatic affairs. And yet ...

Some commitments, such as America’s to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, have been successful and durable, in part because they have been based on solemn treaties ratified by Congress. Another example is America’s commitment to South Korea, also based on a mutual-defense treaty, supported by the presence of 28,500 American troops armed with nuclear weapons until December 1991.

South Vietnam represented a very different challenge. It was war by presidential commitment, the U.S. sliding mindlessly, one administration after another, into a guerrilla war in Indochina, which cost more than 58,000 American lives. Few in Congress or the media questioned the war’s provenance or legitimacy, until it was too late. Finally, there are American commitments to Israel, which are perhaps the most fascinating.

Here we have an unusually close relationship, culturally, religiously, politically in alignment, more or less, yet one without any basis in a formal treaty linking the interests of one nation to the other. It is based primarily on private presidential letters to Israeli prime ministers, rich with American promises and pledges to Israeli security. Over the years many of the promises have been honored, but some were betrayed, leaving feelings of anxiety among Israeli leaders about the ultimate reliability of an American commitment.

No doubt, presidential commitments are seen as serious, almost sacred, promises to act made by a chief executive on behalf of his administration. And other nations may view these commitments as binding nation-to-nation promises that succeeding administrations will honor, too. But there is a problem. Will they?

In 1982, for example, President Ronald Reagan pledged America’s “ironclad commitment to the defense of Israel.” The commitment made sense to Reagan at the time, and it has been echoed by one president after another ever since. But does Reagan’s pledge have the same resonance now that it did then? Does it mean that if Israel feels it must bomb Iran to stop its nuclear program that America must join in the attack? Much has to do with trust between leaders and countries …

A question often asked by political leaders in Israel is whether Obama will live up to his word. Will his commitment be honored or betrayed by him or by a successor? The answer to this question can mean war or peace. Might it not be better for both nations to negotiate a formal defense treaty—and, in this way, try to reduce or even eliminate areas of doubt in their relationship? Those who question the value or relevance of a U.S.-Israeli defense treaty point out that in recent years Obama has tried to organize Israeli-Palestinian peace talks only to fail abysmally because of Palestinian objections to Israeli settlements and Israeli insistence on building such settlements in the name of security. How would a treaty resolve these problems, they ask? Indeed, even the effort to negotiate a defense treaty would likely kick up fresh tumult and anxiety among Arab states, which are apt to see a U.S. treaty with Israel as proof that the U.S. can no longer be counted on as an impartial negotiator.

Another question: Obama has warned, more than once: “Let there be no doubt—America is determined to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.” Though the world has heard this warning, there are still many, especially in the Middle East, who question whether Obama would really use American military power to stop Iran from “getting nuclear weapons,” however that phrase might be defined. It is said in Washington and Jerusalem that never before have Israel and the U.S. been in closer alignment on stopping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. True, and yet not quite true. In the final analysis, for reasons both political and military, Israel may, on its own, strike Iran. Would it then expect American diplomatic and military support? Obama has strongly implied yes. But, without a mutual-defense treaty, there may always be a question about the durability and reliability of a presidential commitment.

Excerpted from the book The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed by Marvin Kalb. ©2013 Marvin Kalb. Reprinted with permission from Brookings Institution Press.