Monday, December 18, 2006

The Last Lull
Nobody is really focusing on it at the moment, but this month of December 2006 could be the last period of relative political peace and calm for at least two years, probably more.

When the 110th Congress convenes in January, there will be four main orders of business: doing the budgetary work willfully left behind by the outgoing 109th, implementing the Democrats' "100 Hour Agenda" that includes raising the minimum wage, making more money available for college financial aid, and other broadly popular provisions; starting to redress the near-total absence of executive-branch oversight that has allowed the Bush administration to run riot the last four years; and determining some new direction for policy in Iraq. The whole point of the Republicans leaving #1 undone was to throw down a roadblock for #2 (Nice, huh? Why bother doing the country's business when there are political fights to be waged? That's a big part of why you lost, fellas); #3 is going to roll forward and likely will trigger an unending series of battles between Congressional subpoena wielders like Henry Waxman and various executive departments, notably that of Citizen Dick Cheney.

But it's #4, the Iraq conundrum, that's riveting everyone's attention right now. In part this is politics as usual: the Republicans are desperate to somehow make Iraq The Democrats' Problem Too, while the Democrats are terrified of making the political misstep that would reopen them to accusations of not supporting the troops. The Iraq Study Group moment seems to have come and gone; it wasn't condemnatory enough to satisfy the Democrats, nor was it sufficiently jingoistic or reality-resistant to find an appreciative audience amongst the dead-enders who still see this accursed war as worthwhile. It's not my point here, but I wonder if the likely fate of the ISG's work--to sink under the waves with hardly a ripple to speak of--doesn't indicate something larger about the final collapse of the bipartisan and consensus-driven model that once obtained for US foreign policy.

Throughout the virtual realm of the Left Blogosphere, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid is taking some shots today for his evident conditional support of the administration's plan to throw more troops into the meat grinder. It's a valid debate on several levels--whether Reid's signal is good politics for the Democrats, whether it's a morally repellent stance even if he's right on the politics, and whether this idea has anything on the merits to recommend it--but, to my view, somewhat misses the point: evidently, we don't really have the troops to do it.

One reason why is the fundamental flaw of the Bush administration: the president and his people have never even tried to appeal to an American patriotism that asks for more than a ribbon sticker on the family minivan. While I no longer have much regard for John McCain, I still believe that in this one aspect, at least, he'd try to show the leadership that Bush never exhibits: I could see McCain getting on TV, attempting to articulate why this war is so important after all, and encouraging citizens to enlist.

But Bush can't and won't do that: not now, not ever. The core principle of his administration is that, as Margaret Thatcher once put it, "There's no such thing as society." We have no ties to each other: as such, there's no reason to enlist in the military, or take action to help the people of New Orleans, or even to pay slightly higher taxes today so our kids don't get it in the neck tomorrow.

It's a classic "free rider problem": those who already have agreed to sacrifice, by virtue of joining the military (whether they did so with an expectation of combat or not), are just ordered to do ever more, so the rest of us need not be bothered. As the holidays approach, it seems to me that the real moral question is whether we can ask any more of those who already have given so much, for such nebulous purpose.

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