July 18, 2007

Mr. Mumbles and his lousy end game

If you want to play chess, you first learn the moves. Indeed, old chess hands refer to learning the game in just these terms: "I learned the moves when I was six years old," for example. There is a humility in this formulation; no one can ever say, "I learned chess." All knowledge of chess is partial, approximate. And all qualitative statements about strategy break down in the heat of battle, for example, "control the center of the board," "maintain your pawn structure." Heuristic clues, that's all we have here. They can't guide a specific move, which depends entirely on context and your wits in figuring out what to do, right then and there. Against a good player, a single blunder is fatal. There are "standard" openings which can at least get you to the middle game with your chances more or less intact. Given the myriad complexities involved in an early situation with 32 pieces covering 64 squares, all with different vector lines and potentialities, it's useful to master certain formulas which avoid the worst of the mistakes you might otherwise make if you attempted to figure it out from scratch.

In the world of politics, such as the initiation of the Iraq War, the opening was the Joint Resolution passed by Congress in the fall of 2002. In honor of our imperial leader, we might call this the King's Gambit. Bush/Cheney & Co. successfully browbeat the Congress into support of their preconceived (that is: prior to 9/11) notion of invading Iraq, deposing Saddam, and seizing control of Iraq's oil reserves. The Democrats blundered badly, especially in the Senate, where the 60-vote rule, about which we now hear so much, would have prevented the Republican majority from conducting a floor vote on the Joint Resolution. Among the 77 senators voting to authorize President Bush to invade Iraq (and there could have been little doubt that's exactly what he had in mind), was Harry Reid, Democrat from Nevada, currently Senate Majority Leader.

So, you screwed up the opening, Mr. Mumbles. And now your end game is a shambles, and here's why: the rules of the game. Once you sign the resolution, you transfer the power to make war to Bush. To take that power away (so you've convinced yourself), you actually need 67 Senators, enough to override all of Bush's vetoes of every single "timeline, benchmark, troop rotation" concoction you can come up with. See how the game is played? Pawns can move forward, two squares on their first move, one square thereafter, and they take other pieces on the diagonal. You can withhold power from the President with only 41 votes, but once you give it to him, you need 67 votes to take it back. Simple, huh? All games have their rules. If you don't know the rules, you'll never be very good at playing the game.

Now, the rule book (the U.S. Constitution) does say that all the money for the war in Iraq has to be appropriated by the Congress. Bush has to have money to keep fighting this disastrous war until January 20, 2009, which is his stated intent. You keep thinking, Mr. Mumbles, that if you make the Senate stay up all night, and say lots of fierce things, that you can change Bush's mind. You apparently believe that a President with an approval rating of 25% will be persuaded if he's concerned it might drop to 24. This seems to be your approach. Or, more likely, you'll do anything to avoid the "radical" approach of Senator Russ Feingold, which is to say to Bush, "no more money." That's a move, allowed by the rule book, which permits you to say "checkmate."

So face it, Mr. Mumbles. You're afraid to win this game, so you're going to keep making moves which you know can't win, all the while pretending that it's part of a brilliant strategy. Alekhine, Capablanca, Bobby Fischer would all just shake their heads in bewilderment: if you can move your queen to KB8 and announce your victory, why would you castle and lose the game?

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