Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.)
New York, N.Y.
September 20, 2004
I am honored to be here at New York University— one of the great urban universities, not just in New York, but in the world. You have set a high standard for global dialogue and I hope to live up to that tradition today.
This election is about choices. The most important choices a president makes are about protecting America— at home and around the world. A presidents first obligation is to make America safer, stronger, and truer to our ideals.
Only a few blocks from here, three years ago, the events of September 11 reminded every American of that obligation. That day brought to our shores the defining struggle of our times: the struggle between freedom and radical fundamentalism. And it made clear that our most important task is to fight, and to win the war on terrorism.
With us today is a remarkable group of women who lost loved ones on September 11, and whose support I am honored to have. Not only did they suffer an unbearable loss— they helped us learn the lessons of that terrible time by insisting on the creation of the 9/11 Commission. I ask them to stand. And I thank them on behalf of our country— and I pledge to them and to you that I will implement the 9/11 recommendations.
In fighting the war on terrorism, my principles are straightforward. The terrorists are beyond reason. We must destroy them. As president, I will do whatever it takes, as long as it takes, to defeat our enemies. But billions of people around the world yearning for a better life are open to Americas ideals. We must reach them.
To prevent that from happening, we must call on the totality of Americas strength. Strong alliances, to help us stop the worlds most lethal weapons from falling into the most dangerous hands. A powerful military, transformed to meet the new threats of terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. And all of Americas power— our diplomacy, our intelligence system, our economic power, the appeal of our values— each of which is critical to making America more secure and preventing a new generation of terrorists from emerging.
National security is a central issue in this campaign. We owe it to the American people to have a real debate about the choices President Bush has made, and the choices I would make to fight and win the war on terror.
This month, we passed a cruel milestone: more than 1,000 Americans lost in Iraq. Their sacrifice reminds us that Iraq remains, overwhelmingly, an American burden. Nearly 90 percent of the troops— and nearly 90 percent of the casualties— are American. Despite the presidents claims, this is not a grand coalition.
Our troops have served with extraordinary bravery, skill and resolve. Their service humbles all of us. When I speak to them, when I look into the eyes of their families, I know this: we owe them the truth about what we have asked them to do, and what is still to be done.
In June, the president declared, The Iraqi people have their country back. Just last week, he told us: This country is headed toward democracy Freedom is on the march.
But the administrations own official intelligence estimate, given to the president last July, tells a very different story.
According to press reports, the intelligence estimate totally contradicts what the president is saying to the American people.
So do the facts on the ground.
Security is deteriorating, for us and for the Iraqis. Forty-two Americans died in Iraq in June— the month before the handover. But 54 died in July, 66 in August, and already 54 halfway through September.
And more than 1,100 Americans were wounded in August— more than in any other month since the invasion. We are fighting a growing insurgency in an ever widening war-zone. In March, insurgents attacked our forces 700 times. In August, they attacked 2,700 times— a 400 percent increase.
Falluja, Ramadi, Samarra even parts of Baghdad are now no-go zones, breeding grounds for terrorists who are free to plot and launch attacks against our soldiers. The radical Shia cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, whos accused of complicity in the murder of Americans, holds more sway in the suburbs of Baghdad.
Violence against Iraqis, from bombings to kidnappings to intimidation, is on the rise. Basic living conditions are also deteriorating. Residents of Baghdad are suffering electricity blackouts lasting up to 14 hours a day.
Raw sewage fills the streets, rising above the hubcaps of our Humvees. Children wade through garbage on their way to school. Unemployment is over 50 percent. Insurgents are able to find plenty of people willing to take $150 for tossing grenades at passing U.S. convoys.
Yes, there has been some progress, thanks to the extraordinary efforts of our soldiers and civilians in Iraq. Schools, shops, and hospitals have been opened. In parts of Iraq, normalcy actually prevails.
But most Iraqis have lost faith in our ability to deliver meaningful improvements to their lives. So theyre sitting on the fence, instead of siding with us against the insurgents.
That is the truth. The truth that the commander-in-chief owes to our troops and the American people.
It is never easy to discuss what has gone wrong while our troops are in constant danger. But its essential if we want to correct our course and do whats right for our troops instead of repeating the same mistakes over and over again.
I know this dilemma first-hand. After serving in war, I returned home to offer my own personal voice of dissent. I did so because I believed strongly that we owed it those risking their lives to speak truth to power. We still do.
The president has said that he miscalculated in Iraq and that it was a catastrophic success. In fact, the president has made a series of catastrophic decisions from the beginning in Iraq. At every fork in the road, he has taken the wrong turn and led us in the wrong direction.
The first and most fundamental mistake was the presidents failure to tell the truth to the American people. He failed to tell the truth about the rationale for going to war. And he failed to tell the truth about the burden this war would impose on our soldiers and our citizens.
By one count, the president offered 23 different rationales for this war. If his purpose was to confuse and mislead the American people, he succeeded.
His two main rationales— weapons of mass destruction and the al Qaeda/September 11 connection— have been proved false by the presidents own weapons inspectors and by the 9/11 Commission. Just last week, Secretary of State Powell acknowledged the facts. Only Vice President Cheney still insists that the earth is flat.
The president also failed to level with the American people about what it would take to prevail in Iraq.
He didnt tell us that well over 100,000 troops would be needed, for years, not months. He didnt tell us that he wouldnt take the time to assemble a broad and strong coalition of allies. He didnt tell us that the cost would exceed $200 billion. He didnt tell us that even after paying such a heavy price, success was far from assured.
And America will pay an even heavier price for the presidents lack of candor.
At home, the American people are less likely to trust this administration if it needs to summon their support to meet real and pressing threats to our security.
Abroad, other countries will be reluctant to follow America when we seek to rally them against a common menace— as they are today. Our credibility in the world has plummeted.
In the dark days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy sent former Secretary of State Dean Acheson to Europe to build support. Acheson explained the situation to French President de Gaulle. Then he offered to show him highly classified satellite photos, as proof. De Gaulle waved the photos away, saying: The word of the president of the United States is good enough for me.
How many world leaders have that same trust in Americas president, today?
This presidents failure to tell the truth to us before the war has been exceeded by fundamental errors of judgment during and after the war. The president now admits to miscalculations in Iraq.
That is one of the greatest understatements in recent American history. His were not the equivalent of accounting errors. They were colossal failures of judgment— and judgment is what we look for in a president.
This is all the more stunning because were not talking about 20/20 hindsight. Before the war, before he chose to go to war, bi-partisan Congressional hearings, major outside studies, and even some in the administration itself predicted virtually every problem we now face in Iraq.
This president was in denial. He hitched his wagon to the ideologues who surround him, filtering out those who disagreed, including leaders of his own party and the uniformed military. The result is a long litany of misjudgments with terrible consequences.
The administration told us wed be greeted as liberators. They were wrong. They told us not to worry about looting or the sorry state of Iraqs infrastructure. They were wrong. They told us we had enough troops to provide security and stability, defeat the insurgents, guard the borders and secure the arms depots. They were wrong.
They told us we could rely on exiles like Ahmed Chalabi to build political legitimacy. They were wrong. They told us we would quickly restore an Iraqi civil service to run the country and a police force and army to secure it. They were wrong.
In Iraq, this administration has consistently over-promised and underperformed. This policy has been plagued by a lack of planning, an absence of candor, arrogance, and outright incompetence. And the president has held no one accountable, including himself.
In fact, the only officials who lost their jobs over Iraq were the ones who told the truth.
General Shinseki said it would take several hundred thousand troops to secure Iraq. He was retired. Economic adviser Larry Lindsey said that Iraq would cost as much as $200 billion. He was fired. After the successful entry into Baghdad, George Bush was offered help from the UN— and he rejected it. He even prohibited any nation from participating in reconstruction efforts that wasnt part of the original coalition, pushing reluctant countries even farther away. As we continue to fight this war almost alone, it is hard to estimate how costly that arrogant decision was. Can anyone seriously say this president has handled Iraq in a way that makes us stronger in the war on terrorism?
By any measure, the answer is no. Nuclear dangers have mounted across the globe. The international terrorist club has expanded. Radicalism in the Middle East is on the rise. We have divided our friends and united our enemies. And our standing in the world is at an all time low.
Think about it for a minute. Consider where we were, and where we are. After the events of September 11, we had an opportunity to bring our country and the world together in the struggle against the terrorists. On September 12, headlines in newspapers abroad declared we are all Americans now. But through his policy in Iraq, the president squandered that moment and rather than isolating the terrorists, left America isolated from the world.
We now know that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and posed no imminent threat to our security. It had not, as the vice president claimed, reconstituted nuclear weapons.
The presidents policy in Iraq took our attention and resources away from other, more serious threats to America.
Threats like North Korea, which actually has weapons of mass destruction, including a nuclear arsenal, and is building more under this presidents watch The emerging nuclear danger from Iran The tons and kilotons of unsecured chemical and nuclear weapons in Russia And the increasing instability in Afghanistan.
Today, warlords again control much of that country, the Taliban is regrouping, opium production is at an all time high and the al Qaeda leadership still plots and plans, not only there but in 60 other nations. Instead of using U.S. forces, we relied on the warlords to capture Osama bin Laden when he was cornered in the mountains. He slipped away. We then diverted our focus and forces from the hunt for those responsible for September 11 in order invade Iraq.
We know Iraq played no part in September 11 and had no operational ties to al Qaeda.
The presidents policy in Iraq precipitated the very problem he said he was trying to prevent. Secretary of State Powell admits that Iraq was not a magnet for international terrorists before the war. Now it is, and they are operating against our troops. Iraq is becoming a sanctuary for a new generation of terrorists who someday could hit the United States.
We know that while Iraq was a source of friction, it was not previously a source of serious disagreement with our allies in Europe and countries in the Muslim world.
The presidents policy in Iraq divided our oldest alliance and sent our standing in the Muslim world into free fall. Three years after 9/11, even in many moderate Muslim countries like Jordan, Morocco and Turkey, Osama bin Laden is more popular than the United States of America.
Let me put it plainly: The presidents policy in Iraq has not strengthened our national security. It has weakened it.
Two years ago, Congress was right to give the president the authority to use force to hold Saddam Hussein accountable. This president any president would have needed the threat of force to act effectively. This president misused that authority.
The power entrusted to the president gave him a strong hand to play in the international community. The idea was simple. We would get the weapons inspectors back in to verify whether or not Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. And we would convince the world to speak with one voice to Saddam: disarm or be disarmed.
A month before the war, President Bush told the nation: If we have to act, we will take every precaution that is possible. We will plan carefully. We will act with the full power of the United States military. We will act with allies at our side and we will prevail. He said that military action wasnt unavoidable.
Instead, the president rushed to war without letting the weapons inspectors finish their work. He went without a broad and deep coalition of allies. He acted without making sure our troops had enough body armor. And he plunged ahead without understanding or preparing for the consequences of the post-war. None of which I would have done.
Yet today, President Bush tells us that he would do everything all over again, the same way. How can he possibly be serious? Is he really saying that if we knew there were no imminent threat, no weapons of mass destruction, no ties to al Qaeda, the United States should have invaded Iraq? My answer is no— because a commander-in-chiefs first responsibility is to make a wise and responsible decision to keep America safe.
Now the president, in looking for a new reason, tries to hang his hat on the capability to acquire weapons. But that was not the reason given to the nation; it was not the reason Congress voted on; its not a reason, its an excuse. Thirty-five to forty countries have greater capability to build a nuclear bomb than Iraq did in 2003. Is President Bush saying we should invade them?
I would have concentrated our power and resources on defeating global terrorism and capturing or killing Osama bin Laden. I would have tightened the noose and continued to pressure and isolate Saddam Hussein— who was weak and getting weaker— so that he would pose no threat to the region or America.
The presidents insistence that he would do the same thing all over again in Iraq is a clear warning for the future. And it makes the choice in this election clear: more of the same with President Bush or a new direction that makes our troops and America safer. It is time, at long last, to ask the questions and insist on the answers from the commander-in-chief about his serious misjudgments and what they tell us about his administration and the president himself. If George W. Bush is re-elected, he will cling to the same failed policies in Iraq— and he will repeat, somewhere else, the same reckless mistakes that have made America less secure than we can or should be.
In Iraq, we have a mess on our hands. But we cannot throw up our hands. We cannot afford to see Iraq become a permanent source of terror that will endanger Americas security for years to come.
All across this country people ask me what we should do now. Every step of the way, from the time I first spoke about this in the Senate, I have set out specific recommendations about how we should and should not proceed. But over and over, when this administration has been presented with a reasonable alternative, they have rejected it and gone their own way. This is stubborn incompetence.
Five months ago, in Fulton, Missouri, I said that the president was close to his last chance to get it right. Every day, this president makes it more difficult to deal with Iraq— harder than it was five months ago, harder than it was a year ago. It is time to recognize what is— and what is not— happening in Iraq today. And we must act with urgency.
Just this weekend, a leading Republican, Chuck Hagel, said were in deep trouble in Iraq it doesnt add up to a pretty picture [and] were going to have to look at a recalibration of our policy. Republican leaders like Dick Lugar and John McCain have offered similar assessments.
We need to turn the page and make a fresh start in Iraq.
First, the president has to get the promised international support so our men and women in uniform dont have to go it alone. It is late; the president must respond by moving this week to gain and regain international support.
Last spring, after too many months of resistance and delay, the president finally went back to the U.N. which passed Resolution 1546. It was the right thing to do— but it was late.
That resolution calls on U.N. members to help in Iraq by providing troops, trainers for Iraqs security forces, a special brigade to protect the U.N. mission, more financial assistance, and real debt relief.
Three months later, not a single country has answered that call. And the president acts as if it doesnt matter. And of the $13 billion previously pledged to Iraq by other countries, only $1.2 billion has been delivered.
The president should convene a summit meeting of the worlds major powers and Iraqs neighbors, this week, in New York, where many leaders will attend the U.N. General Assembly. He should insist that they make good on that U.N. resolution. He should offer potential troop contributors specific, but critical roles, in training Iraqi security personnel and securing Iraqs borders. He should give other countries a stake in Iraqs future by encouraging them to help develop Iraqs oil resources and by letting them bid on contracts instead of locking them out of the reconstruction process.
This will be difficult. I and others have repeatedly recommended this from the very beginning. Delay has made only made it harder. After insulting allies and shredding alliances, this President may not have the trust and confidence to bring others to our side in Iraq. But we cannot hope to succeed unless we rebuild and lead strong alliances so that other nations share the burden with us. That is the only way to succeed.
Second, the president must get serious about training Iraqi security forces.
Last February, Secretary Rumsfeld claimed that more than 210,000 Iraqis were in uniform. Two weeks ago, he admitted that claim was exaggerated by more than 50 percent. Iraq, he said, now has 95,000 trained security forces.
But guess what? Neither number bears any relationship to the truth. For example, just 5,000 Iraqi soldiers have been fully trained, by the administrations own minimal standards. And of the 35,000 police now in uniform, not one has completed a 24-week field-training program. Is it any wonder that Iraqi security forces cant stop the insurgency or provide basic law and order?
The president should urgently expand the security forces training program inside and outside Iraq. He should strengthen the vetting of recruits, double classroom training time, and require follow-on field training. He should recruit thousands of qualified trainers from our allies, especially those who have no troops in Iraq. He should press our NATO allies to open training centers in their countries. And he should stop misleading the American people with phony, inflated numbers.
Third, the president must carry out a reconstruction plan that finally brings tangible benefits to the Iraqi people.
Last week, the administration admitted that its plan was a failure when it asked Congress for permission to radically revise spending priorities in Iraq. It took 17 months for them to understand that security is a priority, 17 months to figure out that boosting oil production is critical, 17 months to conclude that an Iraqi with a job is less likely to shoot at our soldiers.
One year ago, the administration asked for and received $18 billion to help the Iraqis and relieve the conditions that contribute to the insurgency. Today, less than a $1 billion of those funds have actually been spent. I said at the time that we had to rethink our policies and set standards of accountability. Now were paying the price.
Now, the president should look at the whole reconstruction package draw up a list of high visibility, quick impact projects and cut through the red tape. He should use more Iraqi contractors and workers, instead of big corporations like Halliburton. He should stop paying companies under investigation for fraud or corruption. And he should fire the civilians in the Pentagon responsible for mismanaging the reconstruction effort.
Fourth, the president must take immediate, urgent, essential steps to guarantee the promised elections can be held next year.
Credible elections are key to producing an Iraqi government that enjoys the support of the Iraqi people and an assembly to write a Constitution that yields a viable power sharing arrangement.
Because Iraqis have no experience holding free and fair elections, the president agreed six months ago that the U.N. must play a central role. Yet today, just four months before Iraqis are supposed to go to the polls, the U.N. Secretary-General and administration officials themselves say the elections are in grave doubt. Because the security situation is so bad, and because not a single country has offered troops to protect the U.N. elections mission, the U.N. has less than 25 percent of the staff it needs in Iraq to get the job done.
The president should recruit troops from our friends and allies for a U.N. protection force. This wont be easy. But even countries that refused to put boots on the ground in Iraq should still help protect the U.N. We should also intensify the training of Iraqis to manage and guard the polling places that need to be opened. Otherwise, U.S forces would end up bearing those burdens alone.
If the president would move in this direction— if he would bring in more help from other countries to provide resources and forces, train the Iraqis to provide their own security, develop a reconstruction plan that brings real benefits to the Iraqi people, and take the steps necessary to hold credible elections next year— we could begin to withdraw U.S. forces starting next summer and realistically aim to bring all our troops home within the next four years.
This is what has to be done. This is what I would do as president today. But we cannot afford to wait until January. President Bush owes it to the American people to tell the truth and put Iraq on the right track. Even more, he owes it to our troops and their families, whose sacrifice is a testament to the best of America.
The principles that should guide American policy in Iraq now and in the future are clear: We must make Iraq the worlds responsibility, because the world has a stake in the outcome and others should share the burden. We must effectively train Iraqis, because they should be responsible for their own security. We must move forward with reconstruction, because thats essential to stop the spread of terror. And we must help Iraqis achieve a viable government, because its up to them to run their own country. Thats the right way to get the job done and bring our troops home.
On May 1 of last year, President Bush stood in front of a now infamous banner that read Mission Accomplished. He declared to the American people: In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed. In fact, the worst part of the war was just beginning, with the greatest number of American casualties still to come. The president misled, miscalculated, and mismanaged every aspect of this undertaking and he has made the achievement of our objective— a stable Iraq, secure within its borders, with a representative government, harder to achieve.
In Iraq, this administrations record is filled with bad predictions, inaccurate cost estimates, deceptive statements and errors of judgment of historic proportions.
At every critical juncture in Iraq, and in the war on terrorism, the president has made the wrong choice. I have a plan to make America stronger.
The president often says that in a post 9/11 world, we cant hesitate to act. I agree. But we should not act just for the sake of acting. I believe we have to act wisely and responsibly.
George Bush has no strategy for Iraq. I do.
George Bush has not told the truth to the American people about why we went to war and how the war is going. I have and I will continue to do so.
I believe the invasion of Iraq has made us less secure and weaker in the war against terrorism. I have a plan to fight a smarter, more effective war on terror— and make us safer.
Today, because of George Bushs policy in Iraq, the world is a more dangerous place for America and Americans.
If you share my conviction that we can not go on as we are, that we can make America stronger and safer than it is, then November 2 is your chance to speak and to be heard. It is not a question of staying the course, but of changing the course.
Im convinced that with the right leadership, we can create a fresh start and move more effectively to accomplish our goals. Our troops have served with extraordinary courage and commitment. For their sake, and Americas sake, we must get this right. We must do everything in our power to complete the mission and make America stronger at home and respected again in the world.
Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.