Few of his contemporaries and far fewer since knew of the nineteenth century French journalist and novelist Alphonse Karr, but most everyone is familiar with some variant of his quip plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose: The more it changes the more it's the same thing.
Anyone driving the streets of major American cities over the past year or more has seen a bumper sticker that simply read 01-23-2009.
The numbers indicated the date that George W. Bush would leave the White House.
Until last November no one knew who his replacement would be or even with which of the two major political parties he or she would be affiliated; it was enough to anticipate Bush's departure as an end in itself.
Judging by other bumper stickers that often accompanied this one on a given vehicle, it was assumed that those who so adorned the back of it looked forward to the end of eight years of an aggressive foreign policy, one marked by the war in Iraq and, for anyone who had paid attention to other matters, that in Afghanistan and assorted counterinsurgency and proxy wars such as those in Yemen, Somalia and the Philippines.
But for most of those sporting the 01-23-2009 sticker and desiring a change in US foreign policy the sentiment was reducible to withdrawing American troops from Iraq and less so concern for the people of the nation that had been invaded, devastated and occupied.
It seems to have been assumed if rarely opening acknowledged that the eight years of the Bush administration had been an egregious anomaly, an uncharacteristic and unprecedented straying from the path of his predecessor's and indeed all former presidencies.
That with Bush's leaving the Oval Office the traditional US practice of diplomacy as first and war as last resort would be resumed.
No matter that said diplomacy more often than not entailed heavy-handed diktat and demarches, embargoes, sanctions, trade restrictions, the freezing of a nation's and its leaders' financial assets, travel bans, financing of propaganda messages flooding a targeted country, assistance in running opposition election campaigns and attempts to falsify their results, and even covert operations like supporting armed uprisings and attacks on civilian targets - at which alleged diplomacy the Bush administration also proved adept. At least it was something short of war.
Short of war for the United States, that is.
In the preceding presidential election year, 2004, another popular bumper sticker was seen on American cars, trucks, vans, sports utility and recreational vehicles, Jeeps and hummers: When Clinton lied no one died.
The allusion was to the Monica Lewinsky affair, but when Clinton lied about issues other than extramarital dalliances hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians died in Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia and Colombia inter alia, so the real message was that when Clinton lied no Americans died.
More precisely, no American combat troops died.
When Bush lied thousands of American servicemen died. In Iraq.
The subtext of bumper stickers is best left to social psychologists and cultural semioticians, but what is bracketed out of their meaning is frequently as important as what appears on them.
Nevertheless a sentiment, resilient if not conscious, prevailed that with the replacement of one administration by another in the world's most expensive election - $2 billion dollars was spent for the November 2008 polls, half of that on the presidential campaigns - that somehow there would emerge a dramatic if not instantaneous shift in US foreign policy and Americans could again hold their heads up high and be liked by others around the world.
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