A dozen years ago, as President George W. Bush was beginning to build his case for invading Iraq, a key Justice Department lawyer argued forcefully before a Senate subcommittee that the president had the power as commander-in-chief to wage war without going to Congress.
John Yoo, a deputy assistant attorney general, declared that the president was "the sole organ of the federal government in the field of international relations," rather gratuitously adding that "we would be willing to act with congressional support."
A Georgetown law professor, Jane E. Stromseth, argued to the contrary, quoting founder James Madison in 1793: "In no part of the Constitution is more wisdom to be found than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department."
In the issue then at hand, Mr. Bush and his legal adviser prevailed over the law professor and other testifying colleagues that the president rightly had to honor the constitutional instruction under Article I, Section 8, that the power "to declare war" rested with Congress.
Mr. Bush subsequently took the country to a war of choice that a state senator from Illinois named Barack Obama denounced then as a "dumb war." Now, 12 years later as president, Mr. Obama is similarly contending he does not need congressional approval to use military force against Syria, but is asking Congress to give its blessing.
The president insists with considerable validity that Syria is not Iraq, but that the same basic issue is at stake -- use of chemical weapons outlawed as beyond the pale of human decency by international edict.
There is one difference. In Iraq, the threat was empty inasmuch as no such weapons of mass destruction were found; in Syria, the United States insists they actually were used, and offers videos of victims as proof.
In the Iraq invasion, Mr. Bush went ahead before U.N. inspectors could complete their work. Indeed they were withdrawn for safety's sake before the bombs and missiles fell. At this writing, the U.N. inspectors who went into Syria have not yet released their findings, and with no mandate to determine who used chemical weapons if they were used.
So, ironically, Barack Obama in threatening punitive action against Syria finds himself to be a rather strange bedfellow with President Bush, whose war-making proclivity he has so conspicuously deplored in the past.
It could be said that Mr. Obama's heart is in the right place in going to Congress, seeking to reinforce the international abhorrence of chemical weapons outlawed after their horrific use in World War I. But his head has seemed seriously out of synch in his timing. Had he moved much earlier to build an international coalition as the senior President Bush constructed in the first Gulf War, and had he taken it to the United Nations, he might well not be in the dilemma he's in now, with Congress balking.
Mr. Obama has noted that the veto power of Russia and China in the U.N. Security Council would have frustrated such an effort. But had he tried, he would have been in a stronger position in the world community, just as he hopes congressional sanction now could give him higher ground for taking limited military action against Syria.
All such conjecture, however, has now been overtaken by the 11th-hour Russian proposal being considered by the Syrian regime, to avert a U.S. attack by putting Syria's chemical weapons under U.N. control. What may be no more than a delaying tactic has raised hopes of a diplomatic breakthrough detouring further chaos in the region and tossing a prospective life preserver for the shaken Obama presidency.
At mid-week the key questions remained whether Mr. Obama could overcome strong public and congressional opposition to using armed force in Syria, and whether, if he could not, he would go ahead anyway.
Half a century ago, in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. and Soviet Union came to the brink of nuclear war. Then, it was said, John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev "went eye-to-eye and Khrushchev blinked," withdrawing Russian missiles from Cuba.
In a less perilous confrontation but a critical one nonetheless, will Mr. Assad blink this time?
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun