How can a concept such as affirmative action split Americans into so many warring factions -- separating conservative from liberal, black from white, Condoleezza Rice from Colin Powell, and even George W. Bush from George W. Bush?

Is it that some of us are optimistic about racial progress and others pessimistic? That some are sympathetic to the plight of minorities and others indifferent? That some see a fight for racial justice and others a struggle for group advantage?

My own conclusion -- perhaps because it reflects the pulls and tugs of my own mind -- is that virtually all of us are both for and against affirmative action. How we argue about it publicly depends very much on whether we see diversity as a goal -- or only as an issue.

Leave aside the special situation of the University of Michigan (special because it is that university's affirmative action system on which the U.S. Supreme Court will be ruling) and consider other examples.

It's likely that the Supreme Court itself will never again consist of nine white men -- not because it will never be the case that white males happen to be the best-qualified candidates for the court. The court will remain diverse because presidents now and into the future will consider such diversity to be good for America, a way of maximizing public acceptance of the court's judgments even when we disagree with them.

That, even if Clarence Thomas and Sandra Day O'Connor won't acknowledge it, is affirmative action.

Think of post-apartheid South Africa, where blacks are finally as free as whites to attend the country's prestigious universities. If it happens that nearly all of the highest-scoring applicants are white (mainly because blacks, having suffered an inferior education, are generally less prepared to do well on admissions tests), should a top university admit an all-white class?

Or is it reasonable to argue that South Africa's survival will depend on the trained intelligence of all its citizens and that the best of the black applicants ought to be admitted to the top places of learning -- provided they demonstrate the ability to perform the work?

A lawyer I know says he once asked a senior partner what his firm would do if it happened one year that all of its top applicants were black. Would they all be hired? The candid, if somewhat embarrassed, reply: No. The explanation may have dealt with client confidence, public perception, etc. But the attitude was: affirmative action -- this time for whites.

Most of America's highly selective universities -- and most of its top businesses -- practice some measure of affirmative action for minorities. They want to continue doing so, as evidenced by the alternatives they come up with when a court order ends affirmative action. They want diversity -- for the appearance of racial fairness, for public relations and good will, to help America become a more just society, to enhance the academic experience for all their students.

It's almost fair to say that everybody favors affirmative action.

But no one wants quotas, or "reverse discrimination" or too obvious a thumb on the scale. That's why Rice and Powell can look at the same situation and apparently see two different things. My guess is that they simply see two sides of the same coin.

Powell, who has spoken and written favorably about how affirmative action boosted his illustrious military career, sees diversity as a goal. Rice, who may have had some similar experiences, was responding to a president who sees diversity as an issue.

Issues, by their very nature, divide. They force us to choose sides, to work against one another, to produce winners and losers. That is their political purpose.

Goals, on the other hand, can be shared -- even when we embrace different means for reaching them. There is, of course, no one way of producing the goal of diversity -- no way, including Michigan's, that is utterly without flaws. But doing nothing is an option only for those who think the goal isn't very important.

That's the trouble with the president's recent remarks on the Michigan case. He wants to be seen as embracing the goal while doing nothing to bring it nearer. He wants flowers without sowing seeds.