President Barack Obama, according to background briefings by his aides, reached a fateful decision late Friday afternoon as he strolled along the White House lawn with his chief of staff Denis McDonough. Contrary to every expectation by his national security team, Obama concluded that he should ask Congress for authorization to bomb Syria.
The full reasoning behind the president’s turnabout remains murky. He may have wanted to share responsibility for a risky strategy to punish the barbarous regime of Syrian strongman Bashir al-Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people. Obama may have recognized the political dangers of attacking another Middle Eastern country without popular support at home.
And the president, a former part-time constitutional law professor, may have also belatedly recalled the wording of Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution that grants Congress the sole power “to declare war.”
But whatever Obama’s underlying motivations and however the Syrian vote plays out on Capitol Hill, the president’s decision to go to Congress represents an historic turning point. It may well be the most important presidential act on the Constitution and war-making powers since Harry Truman decided to sidestep Congress and not seek their backing to launch the Korean war.
Just a few days ago, before Obama’s decision was known, legal scholars from both the right and the left were in agreement that waging war over Syria – no matter how briefly – without congressional approval would bend the Constitution beyond recognition.
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