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I don't know about you, but I've been confused today.

This diary is my attempt to make sense of the debate between progressives of two sorts, relative purists and relative pragmatists, over the supplemental defense spending bill.  Hopefully this will help other confused Kossaks.  

That is, I come not to destroy this city but to map it, while scratching my head in puzzlement.

It seems to me that both the purists and the pragmatists agree on two aspects of the current situation:

(1) The Zugzwang

(2) The Problem with the Zugzwang

In what follows I'd like to discuss these aspects of the debate as it is going on between progressives.  I'll draw on proponents of both sides: the purists and the pragmatists.

Part One: The Zugzwang

The Democrats are trying to force President Bush into a losing position.

"Zugzwang" is a chess term.  It refers to a position in which you are in no immediate danger, but any move you make, loses.  The rules of chess therefore force the zugwanged player to ruin his or her own position.

In one of the most famous chess moves of all time, Aron Nimzowitsch, in 1923, was playing the black pieces in this position.  He found a way to zugzwang his opponent:

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Nimzowitsch played the seemingly useless p-h6.  A little pawn, going nowhere exciting.  But with that move, his opponent Fritz Sämisch, playing white, gave up.  Nimzovitch's p-h6 was nothing Earth-shattering, but that was exactly why it was shocking; the point was to force Sämisch to move . . . to move anything.  Any move by white, now, would have lost the game.

With the proposed supplemental bill currently under debate, the Democrats are trying to present a bill to Bush that Bush can neither veto nor sign without hurting his and his political party's position vis-a-vis the Iraq occupation and the 2008 elections.

They're trying to zugzwang the President.

The bill might not be the best possible bill Democrats could bring.  The idea is that it doesn't matter.  The bill can be like Nimzowitsch's p-h6: a nothing move.  As long as it presents Bush with a zugzwang.

Schematically, it looks like this:

The political zugzwang:

Bush can't sign the bill because, whatever final draft lands on his desk, it will include a pullout date.  If he signs it, he therefore acknowledges Congress's ability to affect war policy.

Bush can't veto the bill because it funds the occupation and he's not going to get anything better from a Democratic congress.

Now, here's what it looks like in the news:

U.S. Democrats press deadline for Iraq pullout

By Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell
Thursday, March 22, 2007; 3:54 PM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats in the U.S. Congress pressed on Thursday for a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, ignoring White House threats of a presidential veto on any bill that ties nearly $100 billion in combat funds to a 2008 pullout.

-- snip --

House Republicans were expected to overwhelmingly oppose the legislation because of the troop withdrawal timetable and other conditions being placed on the funds. "This is just the opening round of several months of discussions," House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said, predicting that in the end Congress would provide the money without conditions.

-- snip --

Congress is trying to finish the emergency war-funding bill by next month, when the Pentagon says it will run out of money to keep about 140,000 troops in Iraq. But experts think the Defense Department could continue the war into May or June while Congress and Bush fight over the direction of the war.

Let's look at how relative purists and relative pragmatists see it.  (I say relative just so as not to be accused of "pinning anyone down".)

Here is relative purist David Sirota's description of the zugzwang.  Given two possible outcomes, both are good for Democrats:

President Bush will be forced to sign a bill ending the war, or veto a bill and be blamed for refusing to fund the troops. The former is a positive legislative scenario for antiwar progressives, because it cements legally binding legislation to end the war. The latter is a positive political scenario for Democrats, because it further weakens the president for later action.

And here is a comment by relative pragmatist Major Danby on the zugzwang:

We're using legislation that Bush wants as leverage to end the war, and we're setting up the failure to fund at all as being his fault if he won't sign a bill that gives him what he wants under his conditions.  The public will be shocked -- not in the Casablanca sense, but actually shocked -- if we cut off funding, and the right wing of the Democratic caucus will be complaining about the Dem Leadership's actions if they're not pretty reasonable for now.  This is setting up for that Gotterdammurung.

Now . . .


Part Two: The Problem with the Zugzwang

There's a problem with this, acknowledged by both sides.

You can't zugzwang a guy who isn't playing chess.

The Republicans aren't playing chess.  What they will do, instead of turn over their King in recognition of a lost game, is throw the board away.  

Bush and the Republicans will refuse to acknowledge that any war-stoppage language is actually war-stoppage language; they will deny that Bush has to do anything, no matter what "deadlines" or "benchmarks" are passed.

As I said, The Problem with the Zugzwang is acknowledged by both purists and pragmatists.  Let's see how it's addressed by each side.

The Problem is addressed by Major Danby in a very helpful comment:

I think that they also may realize that Bush does have a way out -- by, essentially, welshing on the deal.  (Is there a term for that that doesn't insult Welshmen?  Sorry.)  If he issues a signing statement that says he can do whatever he wants, etc., then the Democrats can be shocked, shocked at his betrayal.  It doesn't really matter if they're actually shocked.  The behavior itself is shocking, and I think the public will be shocked at it, and I think it helps make the GOP own the war and make Bush radioactive to 2008 candidates.

-- snip --

(MD added that it might be good to add language to the bill prohibiting signing statements.)

David Sirota addresses The Problem with the Zugzwang like this:

Now, in the final hours before the vote (set tentatively for this week), they must aim for a concession that the leadership can grant but that does not endanger the binding language that is the prize within reach (a bird in hand...). And there is plenty that can be demanded. How about a letter from Speaker Pelosi committing the House to a separate vote on a specific date on a bill cutting off funding entirely? Or, what about a commitment from Jack Murtha that the regular Defense Appropriations Bill, which comes up soon, includes language mandating an end to the war? The options are limitless.

According to Major Danby, even wiggling out of the zugzwang causes the Republicans irreparable harm for the 2008 elections, after which a Democratic president will end the occupation.

According to David Sirota, the Democrats should zugzwang, not to trap Bush as such, but as a tool to push for further legislation which will trap him.  


I don't know what the answer to this is.  I don't claim to have a better solution to The Problem with the Zugwang than either David Sirota (a relative purist) or Major Danby (a relative pragmatist).  

I assume the supplemental bill will be passed.  I don't know if Bush will veto it.  I just want to make sure we all understand that there is only one real question here: how do we respond, as purists, pragmatists, whatever, when the Republicans respond to the zugzwang by throwing the board away.

[Update 10:41 PM EST 3/22/07 by LithiumCola:] Major Danby has an analysis up.  "The Greater Strength of a Weaker Supplemental $ Bill".

Originally posted to LithiumCola on Thu Mar 22, 2007 at 05:28 PM PDT.

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