Can America Stand the Truth about the Iraq War?

As South Africa currently struggles to achieve the ideals they committed themselves to in their post-apartheid constitution, ironic, as it may seem, we could benefit from the path they have courageously blazed.

How can one of the youngest democracies (post apartheid) teach the oldest, you ask? Very simply, we need our own version of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

We need to follow the South African government's lead under former President Nelson Mandela by assembling a courtlike body after the Bush administration leaves office, calling on key administration officials and key staff within the CIA, State Department, Pentagon, etc., to give testimony on the run-up to the Iraq war. And, like South Africa, grant immunity to those who request it prior to their testimony.

I would love to hear presidential candidates from both parties address the need to formally return to the days that led to the Iraq war. Those were the days that laid the foundation for the current divisive climate that has made the praxis of the Constitution optional.

My fear is that without an honest assessment of how we got to this current state, we will be unable to hold the next president, regardless of party, to a standard that is much above the fear-induced, tacit lack of accountability we bequeathed the current administration.
We don't need witch hunts, political grandstanding or revenge; we need the truth.

The truth about the past is the only way to rise above the current political cacophony that is leading us further down the abyss of despair.

We have lifted al-Qaida to the level of the former Soviet Union in terms of a threat and few can say how we arrived at a point that has us simultaneously engaging in two wars and saber rattling toward a third.

We have become a nation that detains innocent people such as Maher Arar, the Syria-born Canadian citizen who during a stopover in New York en route from Tunisia to Canada was subsequently sent to Syria for torture under the controversial American practice of "extraordinary rendition."

It almost went unnoticed when former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, in justifying the law signed by the president last October that stripped federal courts of their authority to hear habeas corpus suits by noncitizens labeled "enemy combatants," testified last before Congress: "The Constitution doesn't say every individual in the United States or every citizen is hereby granted or assured the right of habeas."

How did we become a country that goes into war touting the superiority of our ideals while engaging in similar practices that we condemn? Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib certainly blurred the lines of our perceived good and evil.

Moreover, how did we become a country that leads with a partisan foreign policy? Such practices have proven more effective in totalitarian regimes than democratic ones.
I live under no Pollyannaish illusions, to attempt an authentic Truth and Reconciliation Commission would be a Herculean effort. The South African government struggled to achieve it and continues to do so some 12 years later.

It would require a brand of contrition seldom witnessed in American history, accompanied by equally unique example of leadership.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr opined in "Moral Man and Immoral Society" that individuals are more moral than communities. Such was the case with South Africa and there is nothing to suggest America would not be any less resistant to such an enterprise.

It would be bold, daring and unprecedented. The only problem is that our current crop of presidential candidates do not show much interest in debating anything short of why they voted, didn't vote or regretted their vote for the Iraq war.

Is there such a leader among us, who possesses the courage to seek the uncomfortable truth so that the nation can move forward? Or are we going to naively believe the damage done these past six years will cease the moment we change administrations?

I would very much like to see our next president, by the second State of the Union address, stand before a joint session of Congress in the spirit of former President Ford and state: "Our long Constitutional nightmare is over!"

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. E-mail him at or leave a message at 510-208-6417.