"We're actively looking at the various legal angles that would inform a decision."
That is what an anonymous administration official told the Washington Post this week about President Barack Obama's deliberations on whether he will personally involve the United States in another Middle Eastern war by ordering military action in Syria.
But the only law that ultimately matters here is the one Obama swore to preserve, protect and defend: the Constitution of the United States.
As recently as six years ago, Obama exhibited a clear understanding of the power the Constitution does and does not give the president in using military force.
"The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation," Obama, then a presidential candidate, told the Boston Globe in Dec. 20, 2007 interview.
Obama, then, could have been channeling James Madison or George Washington. He perfectly expressed the original -- and, thus, the correct -- meaning of the constitutional language on the use of military force.
Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution says Congress shall have the power to "declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water."
As this column has noted in the past, James Madison's notes from the Constitutional Convention -- as reported in Max Farrand's "The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787" -- demonstrate that the Framers intended this language to deny the president the power to use military force without prior congressional authorization unless it was necessary to "repel" an attack.
The draft language discussed in the convention on Aug. 17, 1787, said Congress would have the power "to make war."
Charles Pinckney, a delegate from South Carolina, suggested giving this power to the Senate alone because, among other reasons, the House "would be too numerous for such deliberations" and the Senate would be "more acquainted with foreign affairs."
Pierce Butler, also from South Carolina, proposed "vesting the power in the President, who will have all the requisite qualities, and will not make war but when the Nation will support it."
It was then that Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts and Madison himself "moved to insert 'declare,' striking out 'make' war; leaving to the Executive the power to repel sudden attacks."
Roger Sherman of Connecticut said: "The Executive should be able to repel and not to commence war."
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