Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Comfort is the Enemy of Will

Related to my recurring theme of the importance of consequences is the proposition that making the decision to think about consequences (in the manner recommended by Neustadt and May) and then acting on the results of one's thoughts are both very much matters of will, however critical the situation may be. (The most recent situation I examined in this light is the ugly state of affairs in Congolese Africa.) One does not have to get wrapped up in Schopenhauer or Nietzsche to appreciate the significance of will in the basic matters of getting on the in the world. Nevertheless, we have to ask, if will is so important in times of crisis, why is it now in such short supply?

One would not normally look to politics for an answer to this question, but Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin may at least point us in the right direction. The context is that of the "compromise" between the Congress and the White House over funding the Iraq War, better described by John Nichols' blog for The Nation as how "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid flinched in their negotiations with the Bush administration over the continuation of the Iraq occupation." Yesterday's broadcasts reports from the BBC described this as Congress finally acknowledging that it is not their business to set foreign and military policy; but, interestingly enough, this language is absent from the report on their Web site. From Feingold's point of view, it is the business of Congress to represent the people who elected them to their respective seats. In his words:

Congress should have stood strong, acknowledged the will of the American people, and insisted on a bill requiring a real change of course in Iraq.

There is the word, not quite in the center of his sentence: will. The context should galvanize us all around the political framework that was originally conceived by the Founding Fathers: "the will of the American people." So why did Congress fail to acknowledge this will; or, to play with the word at bit, why did the Congress lack the will to acknowledge the will of the American people, which had been expressed so explicitly in the last election? Feingold's answer is actually in the sentence that precedes the one just quoted:

There has been a lot of tough talk from members of Congress about wanting to end this war, but it looks like the desire for political comfort won out over real action.

There we have the other word, the one that lies at the heart of the title selected for this post. Yes, will is important in a time of crisis; but it may not be engaged if the crisis, itself, is not acknowledged. The American people feel the crisis. Those who have lost family in Iraq may feel it more than others; but the media have provided the sort of coverage that practically guarantees that the rest of the nation will "feel their pain." Feingold has been bold enough to assert that the political comfort of our elected representatives trumps that pain, which means that those in pain really are not being represented.

Will they remember this the next time they have to make a choice? Most politicians tends to count on the right mix of short memories and a tendency to look at averages rather than instances. According to Nichols, is already mobilizing to make sure that they do not get away with that tactic, at least where this issue is concerned. This brings us to Nichols' punch line? How many members of Congress (and which ones in particular) have the will to recognize crisis at the sacrifice of their own "political comfort?" Here is how Nichols wrapped up his own assessment:

Feingold is, of course, right. But how many senators will join him in voting "no"? That question is especially significant for the four Senate Democrats who are seeking their party's presidential nomination: New York's Hillary Clinton, Illinois' Barack Obama, Delaware's Joe Biden and Connecticut's Chris Dodd. Dodd says he is "disappointed" by the abandonment of the timeline demand; if he presses the point as he did on another recent war-related vote, he could force the hands of the other candidates. If either Clinton or Obama do go ahead and vote for the legislation, and certainly if both of them do so, they will create a huge opening for former North Carolina John Edwards, who has staked out the clearest anti-war position of the front runners for the nomination. But this is about more than just Democratic presidential politics: A number of Senate Republicans who are up for reelection next year -- including Maine's Susan Collins, Minnesota's Norm Coleman and Oregon's Gordon Smith -- may well be casting the most important votes of their political careers.

Collins, Coleman and Smith have tried to straddle the war debate. If they vote to give George Bush another blank check, however, they will have removed any doubt regarding how serious they are about ending the war -- as will their colleagues on both sides of the aisle.

This is an opportunity for the American people to watch the behavior of their elected representatives very closely, perhaps even without the mediation of mainstream media (or, for that matter, representatives of the "political blogosphere" like Nichols). They seem to recognize the crisis and have made at least one significant effort to exert their will. Whether or not that effort will be sustained remains to be seen.

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