Win-Lose or Win-Win Politics?
Do we want to live in a world in which the strategies for funding reconstruction and winning a war come from a single party ideology?

Copyright © 2005 Dorian Scott Cole
About this series.


Have we been persuaded to think, in the last few decades of fierce political ideological battles, that "winner takes all" is the right way?

People are very alarmed at the confrontational attitude of political parties, and the unwillingness to accomodate minority opinion and needs. Few issues in today's world lend themselves to black and white solutions reached using the beliefs of only one party. There are other ways of reaching a consensus that makes everyone winners.

Here is the box that politicians put us in: "Their party won the election, so they represent what the people want, therefore they have free reign to ram their legislation through. There are two major mistakes in that mode of thought.

The first mistake is in thinking that in a sharply divided election, that the winning party fully represents the people. A sharply divided vote simply represents a divided electorate. Nearly as many people opposed the candidate as were for him. The candidate failed to address the legitimate needs of many people and win their vote. They have cast their run for office as "winning a race," instead of representing the people.

Similarly, Congressional seats are typically more about keeping the candidate who is doing a good job, not about some ideological battle reflected in the makeup of the Congress.

The second mistake is in thinking that legislation must be rammed through. Party politics cuts both ways, and whatever happens to one party sooner or later gets stolen back in revenge. Currently the Republicans are taking back losses from when the Democrats were wielding power.

Unions are now discovering how the sword of politics cuts both ways. Thirty years ago I stood up in a union meeting and said that their unqualified support for Democratic candidates was insane, and I left the union (I have a low tolerance for nonsense). Each year that the Republicans won, the unions simply ostracized themselves and threw away any power they had for their members.

Today unions are coming to that same realization and abandoning that position... far too late to revive union power. (Some form of collective initiative at all levels of employment is now needed to provide economic security and avoid disparity, but the union philosophy is outmoded for today's competitive world.)

Power plays are one way of getting what you want, if you don't mind revenge. Another way is simply to find legislation that fulfills everyone's needs. Two examples follow.

The first situation looking for a win-win solution is funding reconstruction for hurricane damage in Louisiana and Mississippi.

The search for reconstruction funding has so far meant head to head confrontation. Where will the money come from? Cut spending on other social programs? To all but some ideologues, this would be a step backward and an injustice. Raise taxes? Congress holds that idea in low esteem, despite public willingness. Temporarily roll back tax cuts? An ideological battle that is probably un-winnable. Raise the national debt? Flirting with another national disaster. Reduce pork spending in the current budget? Senate porkers squeal like pigs stuck with a pitch fork. Undo coming tax cuts? It would hurt the married and others.

Those looking for money in today's economic climate are about as popular as telemarketers. Senators are coming up with many creative solutions. But $100 to 150 billion will be extracted from the pockets of US taxpayers one way or another.

There might be a win-win solution for everyone. Delay existing approved spending and coming tax cuts until the major reconstruction payments are complete. People still get what they want, the reconstruction gets paid for, existing programs continue, the money goes into the economy so we don't go into a recession, and we don't strangle ourselves in debt.

Instead of getting into ideological and territorial battles that no one wins, Congress needs to look for solutions that address everyone's needs.

The second situation looking for a win-win solution is the war in Iraq.

When things have come down to military conflict, they are much more difficult to resolve in a win-win way. The situation is complex. President Bush sees the insurgency in Iraq only in terms of a conflict that must be squashed. It is a conflict. But his thoughts on how to resolve or diffuse disputes centers on methods of confrontation: "We stand here, you stand there, we hit each other until one of us dies."

Part of the insurgency is led by Al Qaida. Their only goal is to have their way. There is nothing that can be done with them except undermine and overpower them. However, Al Qaida's strength is in its recruiting. The US is a "love to hate" target, and Al Qaida spins every nuance of US policy to foment hate and recruit people for its cause.

US policy toward Al Qaida is simply to overpower them. While doing this, hateful passions in the area are continuously inflamed, making the recruiting fields ripe for a continuing bountiful harvest. In the downward spiral, terrorists and insurgents prevent economic progress in the area, more people feel hopeless and become disaffected, more people become sympathetic to the insurgents (many with ties to Al Qaida), and the recruiting field becomes larger. For the Iraqis, having the US in Iraq is like having a rich uncle who promises you a good future, but at the same time seems to be the cause of all of the problems that keep you down.

This is a classic escalation of conflict, similar to what happens in Palestine, with its ethnic strife, and third world countries with economic strife. Conflict creates tyranny and oppression, which gives more power to the terrorists - all they have to do is push buttons to create the conflict they need to create instability and dissatisfaction.

A variety of things have protracted the war with terrorists in Iraq. The longer the war goes on, the stronger the insurgency grows. The product of extended time is diminishing results. The slow burn of military action in Iraq threatens to create a boiling cauldron of resistance that will last for years. We frequently hear from military leaders that an insurgency typically takes nearly 10 years to quell. Is this prophetic, a self-fulfilling prophecy, an expectation, or the result of misguided responses? Does the world have more expertise in waging war than in improving economies?

So far, the Bush Administration claims to be worried about the "message" that will be sent if a program of withdrawal is announced. The terrorists and insurgents could claim victory as the US withdraws.

News flash: The terrorists and insurgents will claim victory even when they lose ground or are soundly defeated, and those who support them will believe them. Saddam Hussein proclaimed victory after every defeat. Those who saw Saddam as an icon, would only hear his words of victory - Saddam was the David who stood up to the Goliath US. The message is irrelevant except to those who already believe it.

Sending messages through actions is the poorest form of communications. No one interprets the message the same, leaving it open to ambiguity and counter claims. The message simply isn't received at all by many, who simply stand by scratching their heads wondering what happened, and wait for someone to form their opinion for them. Most will simply see what they want to see. Sending messages? Mistake #3.

Terrorists create spin, and they will always have their champions and followers. World powers create valid statements, and make sure that people can see them clearly.

Currently the Bush Administration is buoyed by news of ties of Al Qaida in Iraq who were plotting against the New York City subway system. This news helps justify the war in Iraq. It could be spun the other way: it is also a sign that the war in Iraq is attracting and creating Al Qaida cells in Iraq. The Bush Administration is also buoyed by information from Al Qaida leadership that it is financially crippled and its leadership is lost, so the US efforts are effective. To be sure, this is a strong indication that the overall war against terrorism is working. Hopefully the letter wasn't intelligence misdirection.

There are only a few realities regarding terrorism:

  • Terrorists have no more power than their victim's societies give them. The more people and the military scramble around in panic, devoting huge resources and effort to protecting themselves, the more terrorists create the high profile and chaos they want. Button pushing. Want to see people scramble in chaos, start a rumor about a plot for a new strike. Those who aren't paralyzed by terrorists soon close the wound and move on.
  • Terrorism is the least effective method of creating social, political, and religious change, and the terrorists and their causes are typically rejected and lost. Insurgencies sometimes work, mostly when they are fighting for people's rights, not causes.
  • Terrorism has no legitimate support by any major religion.
  • Terrorism is simply murder.
  • Terrorism gets defeated, and invites a strong police and military response.
  • Terrorism feeds on legitimate discontent and social unrest caused by oppression and grave economic disparity, and misdirects people's actions into counterproductive efforts that won't solve the problems.

President Bush needs to win the war on terrorism and quit throwing fuel on the fire. But how? You can't bargain with terrorists. Giving them what they want only sets you up for more of the same. Is there something that will defuse the issues?

The insurgents and the Iraqi people want the US out - that is their desire. They needed a liberator, not an occupier. But the US could not leave the country in chaos. Things have changed. The military - if the generals are spouting the truth and not the party line - has finally arrived at the point that as cities of people are put back in the safe fold of Iraqi influence and protection, Iraqi troops can move in and keep terrorists out.

Is it time to say we've reached a turning point in our mission in Iraq. Can we tell the terrorists that they are all but defeated and announce staged withdraws that the entire world can see are not related to the terrorists. Of course, the terrorists and insurgents will claim that they are driving the US out - their version of recruiting and support propaganda - but the world will see the truth, and the lies of the terrorists. Add an incentive. More attacks, the US will come back in force to squash them.

The greatest threat is not Al Qaida (the terrorists), but insurgencies backed by Suni leaders, and religious strong men, that fester and organize support in a power vacuum, with Al Qaida strategists backing enough of them to support an overthrow. The US needs to maintain a strong presence with low visibility, to assist in undermining insurgents to prevent them from gaining power.

Sadly the Bush Administration failed to recognize what would happen in Iraq if the US failed to send enough force to prevent terrorists and insurgencies from growing and disrupting efforts to rebuild Iraq. The result has been a protracted war that empowers insurgencies. The US can neither capitulate to terrorists and insurgents, nor leave a power vacuum for either to fill.

So then, what can we do that is effective? The US can realize that the current situation in Iraq is not a polarized situation of either this or that, but a situation in which it can quit antagonizing people into insurgencies. Sometimes repeatedly beating on something with a hammer is not the best approach - it invites a negative response. Win-win sometimes just means not antagonizing your opponent into further conflict.

These comments are only meant as examples. Funding the rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina damage and fighting terrorists is much more complicated than noted in this article. This article isn't so much about the "what," but the "how." How we resolve issues reflects our national character. The competitive and confrontational spirit often overlooks the people and the issues, with "winning" being the only goal.

Escalating conflict in Congress and in Iraq seems to reflect a preoccupation with wielding power to squash opposition, revealing a lack of respect for people's legitimate needs, and a lack of finesse in resolving problems.

What about power? A popular television show recently contained a line that said that the problem with those who don't want to use power is that they are ineffective in office. A Congressman recently made a similar complaint, saying that liberals (apparently meaning those not radically conservative) were ineffective in office. Are these statements true?

In reality, power is intoxicating and as easily misdirected as a drunk's rambling speech and steps. Being drunk on power isn't the right image for a statesman. The wise and legitimate use of power works to improve the world of those represented (all of them), and the world, not promote doubtful ideologies through power plays. Win-win needs to have a much higher profile.

For more on win-win negotiations, see Diversity Attitude.

- Scott

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