Dana E. Abizaid
May 2008

With the presidential race heating up and Americans excited by the possibility of change, it is easy to forget that United States domestic and foreign policy, as well as its tarnished image in the world, will not automatically be improved by simply replacing the current administration. Two recent news stories, one worthy of the press’s capricious attention, the other a footnote, reveal just how much real cooperative work (beyond slogans) needs to be done to begin to lift the cloud of national shame that has been hanging over our nation for the past eight years.

The first story - recent revelations by CIA Director Michael Hayden that the U.S. has in fact employed water boarding torture against terror suspects - only confirms what most Americans already knew. The press will do its part to spread the story, the government will promise an inquiry, and those Americans paying attention will sincerely be appalled before getting back to their regular lives (most, eerily untouched by the massive wars our nation wages). And though it will be easy and tempting to pass off torture as a necessary tool in the war against violent extremists, or even the work of a few hardened administration officials willing to disregard US and international law, much of the responsibility rests with the nation as a whole. We must accept such wrongdoing as a collective national tragedy. As a constitutional republic this is the necessary first step toward healing our nation and putting it back on its righteous path.

The second story is one of many and, because of its commonplace nature, not likely to generate much indignation or press coverage. On Monday, the US military reported that it had accidentally killed nine Iraqi civilians. The number could well have been 20, 50, or 150. The figure, unfortunately, is irrelevant. What matters is the word “accidentally.” Though the US military surely does not seek out civilians to kill, the nature of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan make it very hard to avoid such an outcome.

The solemn words of military spokesman, Navy Lt. Patrick Evans, though sincere, certainly will do little to improve security in Iraq or bring our nation closer to a successful completion of the conflict. “We offer our condolences to the families of those who were killed in this incident, and we mourn the loss of life.” Such statements will continue to be made as long as we remain in Iraq and Afghanistan. No democratic president will have the power to stem the tide of civilian death in the wars we wage unless his/her administration, with the support of Congress and the American people, has the will to stop waging them.

Unfortunately, change has been ardently resisted through US history. The greatest reforms Americans have made have not been the result of presidential elections, but of the prolonged and persistent efforts of the American people themselves.

When Americans have taken decisive action over the past 40 years to elect presidents promising or representing change, the results have been anything but encouraging. In 1968 Nixon ran on a platform of ending the Vietnam War. The war, however, was not ended until his second term and thousands of American lives were wasted. More recently, Bill Clinton promised sweeping social reform in the 1990s but abandoned his ambitious plans when they threatened his political success.

But it is the election of 1976, coming on the heels of the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal that sheds greater perspective on how little influence a change in American leadership has on the general course of the nation. The Carter experiment lasted a brief four years, before disillusioned Americans again chose the politics of division, deceit and belligerence in 1980. Ironically, one of President Reagan’s lasting achievements, the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, was initiated by Carter himself with the issuance of the Carter Doctrine in 1979, one example of how much more alike Democrats and Republicans are than they would like us to believe. (Moreover, the PATRIOT ACT has its roots in the 1996 Anti-Terrorist Act signed by President Clinton on the heels of the first World Trade Center bombing and Timothy McVeigh’s terrorist act in Oklahoma City, lest we try to pin it solely on Neocons.)

Much of what Carter stood for – CIA accountability, a fair deal for working Americans and a concentration on humanitarian efforts abroad – was snuffed out by a weakened economy, renewed fear of the Soviet menace and America’s irrational need to assert itself military on the international stage after the Vietnam debacle. Ironically, if Carter had been re-elected in 1980, it is likely that he would have increased aid to the Afghan rebels as well as supported Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran. His loss paved the way for his humanitarian legacy.

Recent outrages, including the water boarding revelations and killing of innocent civilians in Iraq, though the result of Bush Administration policies, will not magically disappear with Bush’s departure. Nonetheless, change is the most salient feature of the 2008 campaign. It would be beneficial, however, for Americans to assess what types of changes are reasonably possible, demand those changes, and then provide steady support for the man (or woman) who has the courage to enact them. Otherwise, the euphoria of a new administration will quickly wane and with it, the promise for a better America.