Zero-sum politics

Radio commentary earlier this week from Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, struck a nerve. Gingrich posited the thesis that the soul of global democracy is locked in a long-running struggle between those who value process — even if it should result in a suboptimal result — versus those who favor certain outcomes even if the pursuit of those aims conflicts with standard democratic process.

I must admit to nodding in agreement with Gingrich’s claim. Take, for example, the U.S. response to the attacks on the World Trade Center. The Clinton administration’s position was to treat the 1993 bombing as a law-enforcement problem, complete with indictments and due process of law, despite the stakes raised by the terrorists. The Bush administration’s position was to treat the 2001 attack as an act of war, complete with military deployment and congressional resolutions authorizing the use of force abroad — evidentiary standards be damned.

And the process-versus-outcome dichotomy is apparent from the criticisms of the war on terror. The process fetishists are apoplectic over the Guantanamo detainees, over the apparent lack of WMD discovered in Iraq, over the alleged unilateralism of the U.S. effort to remove Saddam Hussein, over the ways that women aren’t given a stronger voice in the new government in Afghanistan. Even the thought of a female soldier putting underwear on the head of a prisoner is enough to engender a political crisis of the first rank. The outcomes advocates, for their part, are angry that America isn’t building a wall along the Rio Grande, that the U.S. Marine Corps hasn’t leveled Tehran, that the Palestinians haven’t been bulldozed into submission. They’re even cranky that President Bush is engaging diplomatically with North Korea instead of sending in the cavalry.

What to make of all of this?

I suspect Gingrich makes a wise point with his observation. But it’s also generally true that there are two kinds of people in the world — those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t. However useful of a paradigm the process-versus-outcome argument may be, it’s only one possible way among many (and limited by virtue of its binary construction) to view the Western response to Islamofascism.

Democracy functions best when it is muscular in its own defense and generous in the protections afforded by its laws.

Surely, we can have a political system that doesn’t view justice and security as a zero-sum game?

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