If there is one clear distinction between western constitutional systems and the various dictatorships and theocracies around the globe, it is the formers’ emphasis on process. Indeed, we might justifiably characterize our Bill of Rights as a restatement of your mother’s admonition that how you do something is just as important as what you choose to do. ?The ends do not justify the means? is a fundamental American precept.
If there is one clear distinction between western constitutional systems and the various dictatorships and theocracies around the globe, it is the formers’ emphasis on process. Indeed, we might justifiably characterize our Bill of Rights as a restatement of your mother’s admonition that how you do something is just as important as what you choose to do. “The ends do not justify the means” is a fundamental American precept.
That’s why President Bush’s utter contempt for what he dismissively calls "proceduralism" is so disturbing. This administration obviously feels that any means it may choose in pursuit of a worthy goal are justified. That attitude leads Administration officials to misunderstand and mischaracterize much of the criticism coming their way. (Pollsters suffer from this same blind spot, making poll results even less reliable than usual.)
Ask any American if he or she believes we should fight terrorism, and the answer will be a resounding yes. We overwhelmingly agree with the Administration that this effort should be a priority. Ask that same person if we should eviscerate the constitution in the process—by reading citizens’ emails, bugging conversations between lawyers and clients, and jettisoning basic due process guarantees—and the response will be far less supportive. Someone should explain to John Ashcroft that questioning the way we are conducting the "War on Terrorism" is not the same as being "for" the terrorists.
So it is with the war in Iraq. Reasonable people will agree that ridding the world of Sadaam Hussain is a good thing, even if it does turn out that he didn’t have weapons of mass destruction. Many of those same people, however, will question the process through which this war became such a high priority. After all, there are a lot of regimes with equally horrific human rights records. (Several of them are members of our fancifully named "Coalition of the Willing.")
The Administration justified the invasion by pointing to Iraqi failure to abide by United Nations mandates. Again, enforcing respect for the United Nations and the rule of international law are laudable goals—but ignoring the United Nations in order to punish Iraq for ignoring the United Nations doesn’t exactly strengthen international institutions. Neither did the Administration’s refusal to abide by several treaties we had signed, repeated public disparagement of our allies, and the “our way or the highway” approach to countries whose votes we needed. The Administration argues that we had to go it alone because there had been a “failure of diplomacy.” That failure was real, but it did not occur during the UN votes. The diplomatic bridges had been thoroughly burned by prior Administration actions.
The problem with using good ends to justify questionable means is that, too often, you don’t even accomplish your ends. After the glow of a victory that was never in doubt fades, President Bush will find that he has to deal with a world he has made—a world in which the achievement of American goals is infinitely more difficult than it needed to be.