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Jeffrey Feldman

Jeffrey Feldman

Posted: May 23, 2007 12:32 PM

The Double Bind of Iraq


For the first time in a long, long while, I find myself at odds with much of what I have seen on the blogs in the past 24 hours--those pieces that argue Dems in Congress have "collapsed" or become "weak" by putting forward a bill without the "timetable" wording or requirement. These arguments are passionate and persuasive, but they are--unfortunately--all based on the same fundamental misreading of what is happening right now in our federal government. In other words, they get it wrong.

Senator Russ Feingold, for example, has argued in a DailyKos diary that Dems are showing weakness against Bush's strength. I typically agree with Senator Feingold, but this time he has it wrong. It's not that his heart is in the wrong place, but just that what he has written is not accurate. Dems shifted position here not in the face of strength, but in the face of astounding weakness. They shifted, in other words, not in reaction to Bush, but in an attempt to rebuild congressional power in spite of Bush. Why? Because they are attempting to re-balance our constitutional system which is the only way to stop the Iraq mess.

The key, then, is not to see "withdrawal" as the solution to Iraq, but to see rebuilding Congressional power as the solution from which withdrawal will follow as the policy.

The Iraq war continues to burn out of control not because of Bush's strength or ability nor the Dems inability to face him down, but because Bush destroyed the structures in our system that enable our government to maintain and exercise power itself.

We cannot change the Iraq policy unless we first have a fully functioning federal government built on the core principle of the separation of powers. Winning majorities in the House and Senate in 2006 was a step in that direction, but an election victory by itself did not restore power to the Congress vis-a-vis our constitutional structures. To re-balance the system, the Democrats must first generate power.

The Double Bind

The "double bind," then, is this: No end to the war without restoring the balance of powers and no balance of powers without an end to the war. And it has a brutal side-effect in that it makes change seem painfully slow--particularly when the media is so utterly lost and contributing to the confusion instead of helping to clarify.

The solution, then--the "cure" to Iraq--cannot not just political, but must be structural and political all at once. To end the Iraq policy (e.g., redeploy troops, etc.), the Democrats must restore Congressional power which will in turn restore the balance of power. And the only way to do this is to reboot the deliberative process itself--to send bill after bill after bill.

Ultimately, the goal is to stop the occupation, restore the military, end the killing. But the path to doing that is not in one magic bullet bill--the end to the failed policy in Iraq cannot simply be delivered in the right word--be that word "timetable" or "benchmark" or even "impeachment."

What we must do--what the Democrats must do--is restore to our Federal system the core structures that generate American power. And they must do that because President Bush and his Republican accomplices, by virtue of having demolished the separation of powers, have left American foreign and domestic policy not only powerless, but without the means to generate power. Bush has created, in other words, the very scenario that statesmen like John Adams and Dwight Eisenhower understood so deeply.

Weakness and Balance
But let's not lose sight of what is happening here. Harry Reid is not making a mistake. The Congressional Dems have not suddenly become "caved" in the face of Bush's supposed political strength. The opposite is true. Not only are the Dems generating more power each time they return a bill to Bush's desk, but they make it easier to see that the Iraq policy itself has become a symptom of the weaknesses that Bush has forced on America's federal system.

The mistake Congressional Dems have made is that they get the argument about building and re-balancing power implicitly, but if they need to do a much better job of saying it out loud--at saying that the Iraq policy is not the result of the success and power of the Bush administration, but an expression--a symptom--of the weakness in our constitutional system caused by Bush.

I suggest that every Democrat in Congress start using the word "balance" to describe what must be achieved in our government and in our foreign policy.

"Balance" is not some crackpot idea, but is a core idea that runs clear through the history of the American republic.

The balance of powers was not designed to limit power, but to create it and ensure that it lasted. When President Bush collapsed that balance in his first term--and the Republican Congress danced drunkenly around the ruins of that core constitutional structure--our federal system was drained of the very thing it was designed to create and maintain: Executive power, legislative power, judicial power.

President Bush's Presidency does not generate power. It generates the opposite of power: violence. That destructive force that creates uncertainty, destroys principles, ends lives, and builds nothing.

We now have that government, that system that Bush has drained of the constitutional genius built into it by the founding generation and carried forward by dozens and dozens of Presidents.

Staggeringly Difficult
And so, here we are. America is in a situation it has never seen: a foreign policy burning out of control and our federal system of government in dire need of restoration before it can wield enough power to put out the fire.

Never in my lifetime--in any of our lifetimes--could I have imagined that the task facing a new Democratic majority in Congress would be to rebuild the very constitutional structures they were elected to maintain.

The Democrats in Congress have not been perfect, but if there is someone out there who has been perfect amidst all the constitutional chaos created by Bush and the Republicans in the past 7 years, --let that person fly forward on their wings.

In the end, then, we must all realize a very basic point. The politics we are seeing this week are not about the Democratic Party, but about the future of this country--about America itself. And America is not negotiating with a strong policy held hostage by a strong President. We are trying to recover, trying to patch things back together after the constitutional train wreck caused by the current President--so we can plow past the car crash that is the Bush administration-- so that we can put out the out-of-control forest fire that is the Iraq policy.

The double bind has created a mind bogglingly difficult problem that we now must face together. Facing it begins with the realization that ending the occupation in Iraq is a product of many things, but not the weakness of the Democratic Party. The Iraq policy and the inability to end it are all embodiments of the destruction the Republicans waged against our constitutional system of government--those structures that are far more than just clever ideas written on old parchment. They are the very things that keep our system functioning, and when they were destroyed, the new Democratic majority had no choice but to rebuild them.

The problem, other words, is so much bigger than Iraq and is so much bigger than Bush. We must begin to see that Iraq is no longer just a military policy that must stop. Iraq has become a symptom of a much, much larger problem created by the Bush Presidency: the collapse of the very structures that generate American governmental power and allow our federal system to endure.

Unless we stay focused on that larger set of ideas, both our soldiers and America's future will be lost.

(cross-posted from Frameshop)

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