Commentary: In the new year, U.S. must live up to its principles

The start of a new year is typically a time for reflection as well as celebration. Most of the resolutions that result from this annual attempt at self-improvement don't survive their first encounter with an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Here is one resolution that should be made, but won't be for two reasons. First, it has to be taken as a nation and not just individually. And second, it requires a greater degree of introspection than we appear collectively capable of.

The resolution itself is simple — that we live up to the principles for which we say we stand. Many would assert that to even suggest that we don't is nonsense. They have not been paying attention. Here are four examples from home and abroad that call into question whether we really value our values.

In Britain, an official inquiry about the war in Iraq has been underway for over a month. Testimony by a variety of witnesses has shown, among other things, a total lack of planning by the United States about what to do after the shooting stopped. This failure was so bad the former head of Britain’s armed forces characterized Washington as suffering from "dysfunctionalism."

The British press have criticized the inquiry for being too genteel. For instance, questioning about how one intelligence report used to justify the invasion came from a cab driver has been put off and will be in private. But at least it is underway and well covered in Britain. Stories in the media on this side of the Atlantic about the inquiry's revelations are as rare as humility inside the beltway.

Another story that was barely noted by the American press was the conviction of 23 Americans by an Italian judge in early November. They were CIA agents found guilty of the extraordinary rendition of a Muslim cleric. That is the polite term for kidnapping someone in one country and shipping him clandestinely to another to be tortured.

The State Department spokesman was asked about the U.S. reaction to the judge's ruling. The official responded that it was regrettable but refused to say why. This was just minutes after he opened the briefing by condemning Fiji for its lack of an independent judiciary.

One might think that with both houses of congress and the White House in the hands of a different political party than was running things when these blunders and crimes were committed, that there might be some appetite for the truth. Apparently finding out what was done in their name is not something Americans currently care to consider.

That is not to say that the "truth" is not going to be pursued. George W. Bush is raising hundreds of millions of dollars to establish his belief tank at Southern Methodist University. A team of scholar-sycophants will be hired to selectively cull 65 million pages of documents in order to demonstrate that between 2001 and 2009 we enjoyed the most enlightened leadership in the history of western civilization.

And what is the debate about the war on terror that does make the newspapers? It is stories about the grave security risks the country will run if the prison at Guantanamo is closed down and if those incarcerated there are brought to a high security facility in the United States. Congress has refused to fund the effort and that will apparently prevent any progress on closing the prison until at least 2011. So much for our image abroad.

The other story is about bringing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the terrorist who claims to have masterminded 9/11, to trial in New York City. There again the story line seems to be that no American will be safe to walk the streets if this comes to pass.

Those who derive their political power or their audience share from scaring people stupid have been having a field day for the past eight years. They know fear is rarely constrained by fact. The result is we can't even contemplate, let alone resolve to change, the fact we are not living up to the values we claim we stand for.

So perhaps a few editorial changes are in order to reflect the new reality. For instance, we could end the pledge of allegiance by adding a few words. How about "with liberty and justice for all — except of course for those that we are afraid of."


Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador to Mozambique and Peru, is a professor of international affairs at Penn State's School of International Affairs. His most recent book is "Why American Foreign Policy Fails: Unsafe at Home and Despised Abroad."