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The shouted question at the end of Obama's short statement, with Biden at his shoulder, about whether he will strike Syria even if Congress does not approve is the right question, and the answer is almost surely no. Why go through the motions of involving Congress unless the president will abide by its vote? But that question raises more than just awkward possibilities or embarrassing outcomes. We now have the very real prospect of a new balance of power between this President and Congress, and maybe all future presidents, that I'm not sure anyone had contemplated playing out this way even two weeks ago, before the nerve agent attack in Damascus' suburbs. And that is probably still true even if Congress backs the President's position.
It's too soon to fully define what precedent is being set here. The President emphasized that Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is advising him that the mission is not time dependent: strikes will be just as effective tomorrow as they will be in a month. So you might argue that Obama's decision today only stands for the proposition that Congress has a role to play when the threat is not imminent and there is the luxury of time.
But the truth remains that despite the lingering, low-level debate over the extent of the American President's war powers, the modern President -- this President -- undoubtedly had by law and by some 40 years or more of tradition, the authority to act in this case without Congress. He has chosen not do so, in the face of a very real possibility that Congress will not sanction the mission he wants to embark on. A very big deal, and one with far-reaching ramifications.