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This Moment in Iraq is a Moment of Truth

Remarks of Senator John Kerry

April 30, 2004

Westminster College - Fulton, Missouri

As prepared for delivery

It is an honor to be here at Westminster College and I want to thank President Lamkin for his kind invitation.  It is not often in the whirlwind of this campaign that I am able to say yes to an invitation and make good on that commitment within a matter of days.  However, these are not ordinary times, and this is no ordinary college.

When President Larkin’s predecessor of over fifty years ago, Dr. Frances McCluer, invited Winston Churchill to Westminster in 1946, President Truman not only personally endorsed the invitation, but told the former Prime Minister that he would introduce him here. 

Like the world that Churchill saw in 1946, today’s world requires that we recast old assumptions and turn to new approaches if we are to prevail in our historic charge to defend our nation and build a new era of alliances.  The common foe we face today is different in every way, but fully as dangerous, as the one that Churchill so famously described here.

Yet Churchill’s grand theme is still valid and relevant: The United States, he said, stood “at the pinnacle of power” with “an awe-inspiring accountability to the future.” He called for a strengthening of the United Nations, and stronger alliances. Talking of the Soviet Union, Churchill spoke words that are still true, in this different time and against a different adversary: “What they desire is the…indefinite expansion of their power and doctrines…I am convinced that there is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness, especially military weakness.”

Of course, not everyone agreed with Churchill. Rejecting his call for closer ties even with Great Britain, The Wall Street Journal said that “the United States wants no alliance or anything that resembles an alliance with any nation.” Well, some things never change.

What was true in 1946 is still true today. America must lead a broad coalition against our adversaries, and we must be a beacon of values as well as strength to succeed. This is our duty, and our obligation to those great leaders of a half century ago who set us on a course to victory in the Cold War, starting here at Fulton.

So you don’t come to Fulton to give a speech; you come to Fulton to honor a tradition and give the country and the world the gift of hard truths and a sense of hope.

Both are needed today as we stand on the eve of an anniversary in this country—the day that major combat operations were declared over in Iraq and the President declared, “mission accomplished.” 

I don’t think there’s anyone in this room today or 6,000 miles away who doesn’t wish that those words had been true.  But we’ve seen the news.  We’ve seen the pictures.  And we know we are living through days of great danger. 

What anniversaries give us is the time to reflect—not about where we have been—but about what might be possible—possible for our men and women in the military, the Iraqi people and our allies around the world. 

This anniversary is not a time to shout.  It is not a time for blame.  It is a time for a new direction in Iraq and for America to work together so that once again this nation leads in a way that brings the world to us and with us in our efforts. 

In the end, America is safer and stronger when it is respected around the world, not feared. To move to that place of promise and possibility, we must all see and share in the hard truths all around us.

We know that there is no harder truth than when an American pays the ultimate sacrifice for our country.  At this moment, 722 men and women have fallen.  Eulogies and rifle salutes and the last lone note of taps have echoed across our towns.  The sacrifice is profound, the grief beyond measure, and the country’s gratitude is eternal. 

The hard truth is that we know that more lives will be lost until the mission is truly accomplished, and our duty is to make sure that parents, families, and friends who lost loved ones will know that they did not die in vain.

We also know that for more than 135,000 families the ongoing burden of this mission is something they feel every day. The truth is there’s an empty seat in the church pew on Sunday, an extra car in the driveway, and one less friend to phone for a movie on Friday night.   

And the reasons that summoned Americans to service vary. It might be the story of a young man or woman called to duty in the wake of September 11th or by a family tradition of service to country.  Or it may be a small businessperson who is called to Reserve or National Guard duty, first for a few weeks and now indefinitely. 

They answered the call of service, they did their duty.  But we now know that our military was sent into battle without the right equipment.  Helicopter pilots have flown battlefield missions without the best available anti-missile systems. 

We now know that roughly one-fourth of coalition deaths have occurred as a result of attacks on unarmored vehicles because we don’t have enough armed vehicles to go around.  We now know that our failure to forge and lead a true coalition has forced thousands in the National Guard and Reserves to be away from families and jobs for more than a year with no end in sight.  And we now know that civilians from half a dozen allied countries have been kidnapped.  Hundreds of Iraqi civilians have been murdered in terrorist attacks. 

In addition, many of the Iraqi military and police, whom we trained, have refused to fight.  Extremists in major cities are rallying, challenging our resolve, and vowing to drive us out.

This moment in Iraq is a moment of truth.  Not just for this administration, the country, the Iraqi people, but for the world.  This may be our last chance to get this right.  We need to put pride aside to build a stable Iraq. 

We must reclaim our country’s standing in the world by doing what has kept America safe and made it more secure before—leading in a way that brings others to us so that we are respected, not simply feared, around the globe.

This will not be easy, a hard truth that sometimes fails to get through the news papers and daily reports.   But we can accomplish the mission.  And we must.  Because I can tell you from personal experience, we owe it to the brave men and women who stand in harm’s way at this moment.

In America, we’re blessed.  When you stop and think about what it takes for those individuals who risk their lives, say good-bye to their families, and go so far away to serve their country— it is a profound gesture of honor. 

It symbolizes the spirit of America—that there are men and women who are ready to do what it takes to live and lead by our values.    I met so many of them when I fought in Vietnam and I have met them since from Desert Storm, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraqi Freedom. Their love of country and sense of duty, is special. You carry it with you always.  And it is because of them and those who carry on today, that together we have got to do what it takes to get this done right. 

We have got to come together as never before to build a stable Iraq.  Not just to finish the mission, but to remind the world that a shared endeavor can bring the world closer toward peace.

As complicated as Iraq seems, there are really only three basic options: One, we can continue to do this largely by ourselves and hope more of the same works; Two, we can conclude it’s not doable, pull out and hope against hope that the worst doesn’t happen in Iraq; Or three, we can get the Iraqi people and the world’s major powers invested with us in building Iraq’s future.

Mistakes have complicated our mission and jeopardized our objective of a stable free Iraq with a representative government, secure in its borders.  We may have differences about how we went into Iraq, but we do not have the choice just to pick up and leave—and leave behind a failed state and a new haven for terrorists.

I believe that failure is not an option in Iraq.  But it is also true that failure is not an excuse for more of the same.

Here is how we must proceed.

First, we must create a stable and secure environment in Iraq.  That will require a level of forces equal to the demands of the mission.   To do this right, we have to truly internationalize both politically and militarily: we cannot depend on a US-only presence.   In the short-term, however, if our commanders believe they need more American troops, they should say so and they should get them.

But more and more American soldiers cannot be the only solution. Other nations have a vital interest in the outcome and they must be brought in.

To accomplish this, we must do the hard work to get the world’s major political powers to join in this mission.  To do so, the President must lead.  He must build a political coalition of key countries, including the UK, France, Russia and China, the other permanent members of the UN Security Council, to share the political and military responsibilities and burdens of Iraq with the United States. 

The coalition should endorse the Brahimi plan for an interim Iraqi government, it should propose an international High Commissioner to work with the Iraqi authorities on the political transition, and it should organize an expanded international security force, preferably with NATO, but clearly under US command.

Once these elements are in place, the coalition would then go to the UN for a resolution to ratify the agreement.  The UN would provide the necessary legitimacy.  The UN is not the total solution but it is a key that opens the door to participation by others.

In parallel, the President must also go to NATO members and others to contribute the additional military forces and to NATO to take on an organizing role. NATO is now a global security organization and Iraq must be one of its global missions. 

To bring NATO members and others in, the President must immediately and personally reach out and convince them that Iraqi security and stability is a global interest that all must contribute to.  He must also convince NATO as an organization that Iraq should be a NATO mission—a mission consistent with the principles of collective security that have formed the basis of the alliance’s remarkable history in the pursuit of peace and security. 

To bring others in it is imperative we share responsibility and authority. When NATO members have been treated with respect, they have always – always – answered the call of duty.  So too with other key contributors.   Every one has a huge stake in whether Iraq survives its trial by fire or is consumed by fire and becomes a breeding ground for terror, intolerance and fear.

I know that some will say that this is an impossible task, but I believe it is doable with the right approach.  We must lead but we must listen.  We must use every tool of diplomacy and persuasion to bring others along.

I also understand that perhaps NATO cannot undertake the entire Iraq mission right away.  But it could possibly take control of Iraq’s borders, take responsibility for Northern Iraq and/or the Polish sector, and train Iraq’s army.  If NATO did this, it would free up as many as 20,000 American troops, and open the door for other countries outside of NATO to participate.

The immediate goal is to internationalize the transformation of Iraq, to get more foreign forces on the ground to share the risk and reduce the burden on our own forces.  That is the only way to succeed in the mission while ending the sense of an American occupation.

We must take these steps because there is greater strength in greater numbers and stronger alliances.   And failure to move forward will be seen as a failure of American leadership.


The second key element is the High Commissioner.  Backed by a newly broadened security coalition, he should be charged with overseeing elections, the drafting of a constitution and coordinating reconstruction.  The Commissioner should be highly regarded by the international community and have the credibility to talk to all the Iraqi people.

This Commissioner should be directed to work with Iraq’s interim government, the new US Ambassador, and the international community after June 30 to ensure a process that continues to move forward on the path toward sovereignty, while focusing on the immediate needs of the Iraqis themselves.

The Iraqi people desperately need financial and technical assistance that is not swallowed up by bureaucracy and no-bid contracts, but instead goes directly into the hands of grassroots organizations. They need to see the tangible benefits of reconstruction in the form of jobs, infrastructure, and services. And they need to be able to communicate their concerns to international authorities without feeling they are being insulted and disrespected in their own country.


We need a massive training effort to build Iraqi security forces that can actually provide security for the Iraqi people. We must accept that the effort to date has failed: it must be rethought and reformed.  Training cannot be hurried. It must be done in the field and on the job as well as in the classroom. Units cannot be put on the street without backup from international security forces. They cannot be rushed into battle before they are ready.

This is a task to do in partnership with other nations, not just on our own.  This is a task which must be successful. If we fail to create viable Iraqi security forces – military and police – there is no successful exit for us and other nations.

But why would others join a cause that they did not support in the first place?  For one simple reason:  it’s in their self-interest.  For the Europeans, Iraq’s failure could endanger the security of their oil supplies, further radicalize their large Muslim populations, threaten destabilizing refugee flows, and seed a huge new source of terrorism.

And for Iraq’s neighbors, a civil war in Iraq could draw them in, put moderates in the region on the defensive and radicals on the rise.  And a civil war could threaten the regimes in Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.   

These compelling interests have always existed and they must now be the central piece of a diplomatic effort long overdue. Will a new approach in Iraq be difficult to achieve?  Yes. 
Is there a guarantee of success?  No. 

In light of all the mistakes that have been made, no one can say that success is certain, but I can say that if we do not try, failure is all too likely.

If the President will take the needed steps to share the burden and make progress in Iraq – if he leads – then I will support him on this issue.

When Winston Churchill came to Westminster and defined the great mission of the Cold War, he called on free nations to stand together against tyranny.  America’s leader in that moment of history was a tough and visionary son of Missouri named Harry Truman.  President Truman could have used America’s power as an excuse to go it alone in the world.  Instead, he joined with the leaders of many nations to create institutions like NATO and other alliances to preserve peace, spur economic progress and address global problems. 

Much has changed since Churchill spoke.  The institutions created more than half a century ago remain useful and relevant.  But yesterday’s designs are not sufficient to meet today’s needs.  Our institutions and alliances must adapt to new opportunities and threats.  New enemies must be confronted by new strategies. America must lead in new ways.
But even as we contemplate what has changed, we must also remember what has not: Our belief in the rights and dignity of every human being. Our faith in democracy as the best form of government in all of human history.  And our confidence in America’s capability to lead allies and friends to stand together and build a world more peaceful, prosperous and just than we have ever known before.

That was our mission in Churchill’s time.  And for all the differences of time and circumstance, that is our urgent need in Iraq today and our enduring mission in the years ahead. 

There is pride in that and honor – and if we meet the test, we can have a world that is safer because of American leadership.

Thank you very much.