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Analyzing How Presidents Wage War


This new turn, as we just heard, started with a stray remark from the Secretary of State in a crisis whose roots go back to an unplanned comment by the president, drawing a red line against chemical weapons.

Historian Michael Beschloss has studied presidents back to the founders, and he's studied how they've exercised their authority to go to war. He came into our studio to offer precedents for how President Obama has handled the aftermath of an alleged chemical attack by the Syrian government on the Syrian people. Beschloss says the founders believed any act of war should be approved by Congress, but presidents have been all over the map in abiding by this principle.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Franklin Roosevelt was the last president to go to Congress and ask for a major war declaration, which was World War II. Harry Truman, in 1950, was planning a Korean War, called it a police action. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon waged most of the Vietnam War on the basis of a very flimsy resolution, 1964 Gulf of Tonkin, that was passed in response to a so-called attack on an American ship that actually did not happen.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, this president did not seem to intend to go to Congress in the first place.

BESCHLOSS: If the president had intended to go to Congress at the beginning of this, this is probably not the way he would have done it. And you begin go wonder whether he may have begun to think that the penalty for not going to Congress was greater than the trouble of doing it, because there have been some members of Congress who have talked about impeachment, even. So it's entirely conceivable that if you have members of Congress who just are very opposed to the president, even using the word impeachment, that to strike another country in this way might hand them fodder.

MONTAGNE: Well, this president seems conflicted. He had Secretary of State Kerry make an impassioned appeal for action, and the very next day, he announced he was going to seek Congressional approval for a strike. What does that flip say about Obama?

BESCHLOSS: I think he got cold feet, in the end. And I think, as a human, being rather than as a president, he felt very strongly that the United States should consider humanitarian missions, like intervening in Rwanda, which we didn't do. He thought that we should. He also was a constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago, was very strong in saying that presidents should consult Congress when there are military actions anticipated of even moderate size. And he may have begun to say to himself, you know, I'm drifting a little bit far from my original ideas and, you know, perhaps there should be a little bit more coherence.

MONTAGNE: For two-and-a-half years, President Obama avoided getting entangled in this civil war in Syria. But last year he uttered the now-famous challenge that chemical weapons are, or would be, a red line. Was that something of an off-the-cuff remark?

BESCHLOSS: I cannot imagine that when President Obama said that chemical weapons in Syria would be a red line, that he was doing that after a lot of forethought, expecting that this would happen, and that he would have to respond in this way. And that also has its historical precedent. In September of 1962, John Kennedy was at press conference, and a reporter said: What would you do if there were offence and weapons in Cuba? And Kennedy thought that that was so unlikely, he just said of course that would be something that we would have to take the largest measures to get rid of.

MONTAGNE: That sounds like another time when the president painted himself into a corner.

BESCHLOSS: Kennedy did paint himself into a corner, because you can hear on these tapes of his private meetings during the Cuban Missile Crisis, his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, says there are Soviet missiles in Cuba, but I don't think they really change the balance. So I don't think this is worth going to war about. And Kennedy essentially said: I don't have that option, because at this press conference, I said I would go to war to get such things out.

MONTAGNE: Just finally, knowing what you know about presidential history, presidential powers and this president, do you expect that he will go ahead with a strike on Syria if Congress votes against it?

BESCHLOSS: If a president were not intending to go ahead with this after a congressional vote, I think it would have been very much in his interest for his people to simply say to Congress: This is up to you. If you say no, the president won't do this. That would be empowering to Congress. That has not been said. And I think - and I'm speculating here - but if the President goes forward with this attack after a negative congressional vote, it is probably in his interest to make the case that this is like Clinton-Kosovo, 1990s, which turned out to be a great success.

MONTAGNE: Presidential historian Michael Beschloss, thank you very much for joining us.

BESCHLOSS: Pleasure, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.