02/27/2013 07:37 am ET Updated Apr 29, 2013

This Is How Wars Start

WASHINGTON -- This is how wars start: self-righteousness, wounded pride and ignorance about the determination of the other side.

The level of enmity and distrust here between Democrats and Republicans is as deep as it has been in a long time -- and both sides are in danger of underestimating the other's willingness to let destructive things happen to the country.

Once the sequester starts -- and everyone assumes that it will, on Friday -- there is a risk that things may spiral out of control. That is what sometimes happens in war. A spark starts a fire.

White House officials are convinced they have won the pre-sequester spin war, and they are right. They are equally sure that they will be winning it once the effects of the sequester begin to hit home. The aides are probably right about that, too.

They also are convinced that the GOP will crack -- is beginning to crack -- under the pressure of shouldering blame for sequester-engendered reductions in military force and layoffs of defense contractors.

They may be right about that -- at least in the short run -- but even if they are, where will that get the White House? If the GOP is dragged to the negotiating table, will that lead to a so-called Grand Bargain? Will any resulting deal short-circuit the other pending disruptions: a vote on the regular budget March 27, another debt ceiling vote this summer? Will it do anything to ease the gridlock that has turned Washington into a never-ending standoff?

Or will it just make the atmosphere all the more toxic, resentful and angry?

The White House might consider the winning formula of legendary Washington attorney Edward Bennett Williams. One of the great criminal defense lawyers, Williams always said that he wasn't representing a client per se. "I represent the situation," he said.

Whether he knows it or not, or admits it or not, or knows how to do it or not, President Barack Obama is now representing the situation, which is that he is presiding over a country with a broken political system at a time when the world has begun to doubt American leadership, economic prowess and staying power.

Obama argues that if he is to preserve all three, Republicans must accept that wealthy Americans should pay more to the Treasury.

As a matter of fairness, he is right. But what if insisting on his obligation to make that point, and extract that concession, leads to the chaos that most Republican House members seem to welcome?

This isn't politics. It's a hostage-taking situation, but it is the Situation.

As ironic and unfair as it seems to say, Obama, having resurrected and unified his own Democratic Party, may need to try to save the GOP from itself. How is anyone's guess, but that's the situation.

It's ironic and unfair, but Obama's task now may be to unsettle his own party as he attempts to salvage the GOP as a viable negotiating partner. "The Republicans think we are out to destroy them, but the opposite is true," one Obama insider told me. "We need somebody to talk to."

The administration is full of wounded pride about what it has done, and anger about the GOP refusal to take all the blame. And Obama insiders make a raft of valid points as the battle lines form.

Yes, Obama has a plan, even if Democrats in the Senate haven't introduced it per se, and it includes cuts in entitlement programs. Yes, Republican House Speaker John Boehner pulled the plug on negotiations over a so-called Grand Bargain last year. Yes, the GOP in the House has taken an "absolutist" stance in recent weeks against any further revenue-raising measures -- only months after Boehner was willing to countenance even more of them than Obama now says he wants.

Yes, the president has been willing to put "entitlement cuts" -- very loosely defined for the most part -- "on the table and that the GOP campaigned in 2012 against cuts in entitlements the president himself had wanted to make. Yes it is true that the annual deficits are shrinking somewhat as a percentage of the overall economy.

And yes it is true that most of the GOP is behaving like college protestors, and their motivations are as hard for outsiders to fathom as, say, North Koreans. And yes Obama won the election, and yes he wants to keep faith with the people who elected him.

These points are near and dear to the hearts of White House spinners. They make it abundantly clear that the president has not been a bad actor on deficits and budgets and that he is not solely, or necessarily even primarily, to blame for the mess we are in.

But all of this furious spinning and blame-placing misses the point. The president and his people can either keep piling up points in a game they have already won, or figure out a way forward at a time when the rest of the world increasingly is inclined to doubt American leadership for a host of other reasons.

No one claims to know what that way forward is. But "Forward" was Obama's winning campaign slogan. So that is the situation we are in.