The Constitution of the United States is a brilliant contraption, but the duel under way between Congress and the President over the war in Iraq has put some of its limitations on display. The document specifies that “Congress shall… declare War” (a provision that Congress seems to have forgotten) while assigning the President, as Commander in Chief, the power to wage the war thus declared (this provision is well remembered!). But the document offers no provision for cases in which the two branches disagree on the waging of a war already begun. No constitutional provision specifically assigns any branch of government the power to “undeclare” a war. Only Congress’s power of the purse–that blunt instrument–seems up to the job. What if, for example, a President were to oppose a war that Congress ordered him to fight? Could the Commander in Chief successfully fight a war he did not believe in? That problem has never arisen, but now the opposite situation has developed, as it did once before, during the Vietnam War: Congress has turned against a war it once authorized, while the executive continues to insist on waging it.

Now in Democratic hands, Congress seeks to find a way to make its will felt in the face of George W. Bush’s seemingly implacable resolve to “stay the course” in Iraq. One serious problem is that if, fearful of demanding a true end to the war, Congress merely tries to influence the war’s conduct by issuing guidelines, passing resolutions, demanding certain changes in the military mission and such, then it creates two “deciders” regarding the conduct of the war–a situation that even the warmest advocate of separation of powers will find dubious. Republicans may have a point when they say Congress should not merely interfere in the decisions of the Commander in Chief but should either defund the war altogether or stay out of it.

And yet if, to create unity, the Democrats in Congress join with moderate Republicans around a cosmetic compromise–as many seem tempted to do–they will have embraced the worst of all possible worlds. For example, Senator Jack Reed announced in his response to Bush’s September address to the nation on the war that a Democratic plan would focus “on counterterrorism and training the Iraqi army.” Such a proposal–easily interpreted by the Administration to justify everything it is doing–would be a de facto acquiescence to the Bush policy. It could create a policy quagmire to match the quagmire on the ground in Iraq. For example, if the military launched operations supposedly to counter terror but actually to quell civil war, would Congress demand their cessation? Could it? By what means? Moreover, the unity such a policy would produce would be strictly a Congressional affair. It would nullify the public’s will, clearly expressed in the 2006 elections as well as subsequent opinion polls, to end the war. We are often warned not to “politicize” the war. If that means politicians should not use the war for partisan advantage, the advice is sound. Yet in a deeper sense, politics is the way a democracy conducts its business. It is the means the public is given for making basic decisions facing the nation. If the Democrats close ranks with the Bush Administration around a policy that continues the war, the fundamental purpose of the Constitution–to provide a mechanism for government by the people–will have been thwarted. Without politics, there is no democracy.

Some Democrats point out, quite correctly, that the 2006 election has not given them the votes to prevail with a war-ending policy. As everyone knows, a majority vote in the Senate will not suffice; sixty votes are required to cut off a Republican filibuster, and sixty-seven to overcome a presidential veto. It is true that a cutoff of funds requires only fifty-one votes, but this decisive measure is also likely to lose support among middle-of-the road Democrats, and thus, for the time being, fail. (They are mortally afraid that a cutoff in funds would leave them open to the charge, baseless as it is, that they are refusing to “support the troops,” as if a fund cutoff were a proposal not to bring the troops home safe and sound but a formula to leave them in the field while depriving them of food, ammunition and armor.) Even so, it would be far better for the Democrats as a party to stand fast for the complete withdrawal of American troops. They would then try to win over wavering Republicans (as well as fellow Democrats) in Congress. In the background would be the people’s will–the threat of electoral defeat of the Republicans, both for the executive and legislative offices, in 2008. In short, the Democrats should “politicize” the war in the best sense of that word. It probably will not end while Bush is in office (unless Republican support for it in Congress erodes under pressure of public opinion), but the foundation would be laid for a grand decision by the people in the 2008 election.

Nothing about such a policy would be easy, politically or substantively. It would involve a frank acknowledgment that Congress had decided not just to influence the President but actually to supplant his will with its own. In the event (however unlikely) that a filibuster or veto was overridden, or a funding cutoff was passed, Congress would no longer be “interfering” with the President’s role as Commander in Chief but superseding it. Congress would be telling Bush, “You are still the Commander in Chief, but we are taking away your war.” The President might, of course, defy Congress. If his past behavior is any guide, he probably would. In that case, the country would face a full-blown constitutional crisis. But the truth is that the country is already in a muffled, slow-motion constitutional crisis–one that only Bush is fighting and therefore constantly winning. The outcome of an open confrontation would not be pre-ordained. But if there is no fight, there can be no victory. And at present we are sleepwalking into one-man rule.

If Congress were ready to take responsibility in this dramatic way, it would need to step beyond its role as opposition and assume the full burden and accountability of power. First it would have to abandon the fantasy–as imaginary as Bush’s ideas of victory–that it will suffice to “redeploy” US troops, as if a rearrangement of American forces in Iraq can accomplish the political goals that four and a half years of bloody war have failed to achieve. (The word “redeploy” is of course just a miserable euphemism for the good, clear English word “withdraw.”) The plan supported by Senator Reed makes this mistake. Likewise, the Democrats would have to abandon the idea that a “residual” force could be left behind to fight terrorism and train Iraqi forces. The 160,000 troops now in Iraq are unable to accomplish these things. How would, say, 50,000 manage it? To withdraw is to acknowledge the failure of the American mission in Iraq. The war in the fall of 2007 is like Enron in the fall of 2001–the bankruptcy has long since occurred, irreversibly, and only the facade of a going enterprise remains. A high price must be paid. No policy can make any sense unless this elemental truth is acknowledged.

Above all, the Democrats would have to face up to the likelihood–if not the inevitability–that a complete withdrawal of US forces would be followed by a larger-scale civil war than is already occurring. So far Democrats have, to their own peril, left it to Republicans to warn of this obvious danger. For the Republicans are not only defending current policy but establishing the predicate for a stab-in-the-back accusation following a possible Democrat-led withdrawal. They will throw Democratic assurances that withdrawal was the path to success back in their faces. Democrats said everything would be fine, Republicans will charge, but they have brought expanded slaughter and a wider civil war. The Democratic answer, which must be articulated immediately, well before the fact, is that a larger disaster may indeed be in the offing but that if it comes it will be the result not of withdrawal–for staying can only protract the disaster and postpone the reckoning–but of the decision to go into Iraq in the first place.

Senator Barack Obama, who bravely opposed the launch of the war, has put forward an elaborate proposal for withdrawal that involves the United Nations and regional powers to create a unified government in Iraq. His plan, or something like it, is worth trying. But while to hope that withdrawal plus international assistance will “pressure” the Iraqis to reconcile is just barely reasonable, to assume this miracle and promise it to the public is folly. Senator John Kerry, for example, fell into this trap when he said the Democrats’ plan was one that would “make Iraq successful.” That promise propels the Democrats straight into the jaws of the stab-in-the-back accusation being prepared by Republicans. Democrats instead should argue that with every month that the United States stays in Iraq, the likelihood and magnitude of an unchecked Iraqi civil war grows rather than diminishes. If we look back at the war so far, they should point out, American withdrawal at any given moment would have given Iraq a better chance than at any later moment.

Failure to acknowledge these hard truths would be a sign that the Democrats are not, after all, ready to make serious decisions and assume the responsibilities of power. They will then evoke–and deserve–the disdain of the public that is already becoming manifest in the polls.