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John Kerry: New Iraq Policy Can’t Wait Until September

by Pamela Leavey

In the wake of the newly released Iraq report, Bush is in a “race against time” in thebattle to preserve his long failing Iraq War policy. On Thursday, the House passsed a measure calling for troop withdrawal by the spring and in the Senate, Senator John Kerry spoke on the urgent need for the U.S. to shift the mission in Iraq to allow a redeployment of troops out of the country within a year. Kerry, who is co-sponsoring the Levin-Reed-Kerry withdrawal amendment, originally called for moving US troops out of Iraq more than a year ago.

Kerry’s powerful floor statement as prepared for delivery on the Senate floor is below:

Today the President made a partial report on Iraq. While it is true there has been some tactical military success—no amount of spinning the military component can obscure the bottom line reality in Iraq today: That reality is clear: there has been no meaningful political progress, and in the long run, that is the only progress that counts. Unless and until Iraqis begin to resolve their fundamental political differences, any security gains will be temporary at best. Welcome, but temporary. Moving the goalposts, dressing up the failure to meet strict benchmarks as “progress”—these are rationalizations for failure, not plans for success.

Meanwhile, another report tells us that while we’ve been bogged down and distracted in Iraq, Al Qaeda has found safe haven in Pakistan and rebuilt its organization. Today, top intelligence officials tell us that Al Qaeda is better positioned to strike the West than they’ve been at any time since 9-11. And where’s our focus? On Iraq. Our continued presence in Iraq isn’t just a distraction from the fight against terrorists—it’s also Al Qaeda’s best fundraising and recruiting tool. We don’t have to wait until September to know that we need a new policy.

Two days ago, I heard some colleagues come to the floor and question why we’re having this debate now when the White House is going to report on his escalation in September.

I heard Sen. Sessions say “This is not the time to alter the policy we established about 2 months ago.” I heard Sen. Kyl say “we need to await the report in September before making judgments about what to do next.” I heard Sen. McCain ask, and these are his words, why “do we have to keep taking up the Iraq issue when we know full well that in September there will be a major debate on this issue?”

I have great respect for my colleagues, I particularly know how much my colleague the senior Senator from Arizona cares about American troops serving in Iraq.

But these questions from the other side of the aisle astonish me. Why now? Why this debate now? Why do we have to, as Sen. McCain asked, “keep taking up the Iraq issue?”

The answer is simple—and compelling: Because American soldiers are dying now. Because the escalation is a failure, now – and we know it. Because when a policy isn’t working, you don’t wait for some artificial timeline to fix it. You fix it now.

Mr. President, the same voices who have come to the floor for years condemning artificial deadlines now want to wait for more Americans to die and more Iraqis to kill each other until the artificial deadline of September, so President Bush can deliver his report even though we know exactly what it will say. The report will reflect the evidence we see in Iraq every day: violence up in some places, down in others, a civil war raging on, squabbling Iraqi politicians and sectarian forces refusing to compromise, and most importantly—no real political progress in spite of the supposed ‘breathing room’ the escalation provided.

Many of us here remember how during Vietnam, President Nixon continued our involvement because he didn’t want history to judge him as losing the war—so we continued our intervention in a civil war for pride and face—not for a winning strategy.

Presidents and politicians may have the luxury of worrying about losing face or legacy, but it’s time for the Senate to think about young Americans and innocent civilians who are losing their lives now for a policy that is failing now.

In recent weeks, some have reminded me of a question I asked when I returned from war, almost 40 years ago now, when I spoke from my heart about what I thought was wrong with that war.

Back in 1971, I was privileged to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and raise the question: How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?

I never thought that I would be reliving that question again. I never thought I’d have parents of young Americans killed in Iraq look me in the eye and tell me “Senator, my son died in vain.”

On a personal level, I believe—as I am sure each of my colleagues does– that any American who gives up life or limb for love of country has never done so in vain because service to country under any circumstances is the highest calling there is. But I’d like to be able to tell those parents that their sons and daughters died for a policy equal to their service and sacrifice.

I really thought we’d learned something from Vietnam. I thought we’d learned something from a war that went on and on, a war that was escalated long, long after presidents and policymakers knew that no number of American troops could end a civil war between the Vietnamese. But we are back in the same place today. Most of our colleagues understand this war was a mistake and that this policy is a mistake today.

We are seeing a war prolonged and prosecuted not for a winning strategy but for a refusal to accept reality. What is that reality? No number of American troops can solve the political differences between Iraqis.

So each member really has to ask themselves, what is our responsibility to our soldiers and to the country? I think it’s to get the policy right—now.

The only question is whether we’re going to change the policy. The only question is whether we’re going to stop this Administration from adding to thousands of mistakes, mistakes compounded, mistakes mounted one upon the other – or whether we’re just going to say we’d like to, say we have a responsibility to act, and then do nothing.

It’s actually that simple. If you know this policy is broken now, don’t wait until September – fix it now.

If you need a reminder of the urgency, you don’t have to wait until September to see something that should remind each and every one of us what this is about. Go out to Arlington almost any day of the week. You don’t have to wait until September. See one of those coffins that rest above the ground, draped in a flag, rippled by the breeze. Watch the hands of the Honor Guard take that flag and begin to fold it. Watch how a perfect blue star triangle is handed to the General who walks slowly to the mother and kneels, handing her the flag with the words, “On behalf of a grateful nation…” Watch her sob. Watch her husband hold her. Listen to the lone bugle sound its mournful taps.

We’re losing around 100 soldiers a month. Ask yourself, how many more times will that scene be repeated to give the President more time for what we already know is a failed policy? How will you feel in September when you do the thing you ought to be doing today? What will you say to the parents of the soldiers lost in the meantime? That they gave their lives so that we could wait for a report? The policy isn’t working; the Iraqis aren’t compromising; we must change course now.

Just over a year ago, Russ Feingold and I came to the Senate floor and asked our colleagues to confront this reality: to recognize the fact that our own Generals knew even then there was no American military solution to an Iraqi civil war, to acknowledge that the political progress necessary for the Iraqis to end their civil war would only come if America compelled them to act by imposing meaningful deadlines and leveraging those deadlines with legitimate diplomatic effort.

That was one year ago. We got thirteen votes. People said they weren’t ready. They said, “I’m not there yet.” Well, a thousand Americans have died since then. What about now? Are you ready now? Or will it take another thousand?

Those thirteen votes have grown to more than fifty votes today—but still the policy is the same. So today, I have joined Senators Levin and Reed of Rhode Island to introduce a similar amendment, to ask once again: Is there anyone today who can honestly doubt that we need a change of course in Iraq? Is there anyone today who persists in the delusion that we can continue to neglect sustained and intensive diplomacy? Is there anyone today who denies that we need a political solution?

This time there is no splitting the difference. Private hand-wringing won’t suffice: It’s time to speak one’s conscience publicly—not privately in the cloakroom or committee– and vote for a dramatic change of course, otherwise one is acquiescing to —supporting— the current strategy.

Can anyone read the names of the 523 Americans who have died since the escalation began—an escalation to give Iraqis breathing room to meet political goals—political goals they are nowhere near meeting—can anyone look at the squabbling of the Iraqi political elites and say it’s legitimate to wait until September to act, let alone accept another 18 months of the same or worse, until a new President sets in motion a new policy with even fewer options to choose from?

We all know there’s no military solution to the violence. There’s only a political solution. So let’s talk about the status of political reconciliation efforts.

It’s been over a year since the Maliki government took power: What have we asked of them? What have they agreed to do? What have they accomplished?

Virtually nothing. And to make matters worse, this isn’t the first time that the Iraqis have failed to meet the very political benchmarks that they’re failing to meet today.

  • Nine months ago was the deadline for Iraqis to approve a new oil law and a provincial election law. Neither one has been approved.
  • Eight months ago was the deadline for a new de-Ba’athification law to help bring Sunnis into the government. Guess what? It hasn’t happened.
  • Seven months ago was the deadline for Iraqis to approve legislation to disarm the militias. Absolutely no progress has been made on this crucial legislation and the militias continue to wreak havoc.
  • Six months ago was the deadline for Iraqis to complete a constitutional review process. The Constitutional committee hasn’t even drafted the proposed amendments, and the Iraqis remain far apart on basic issues such as federalism and the fate of the divided city of Kirkuk.
  • So we find ourselves no closer to a political solution today than we were when the Maliki government took power over one year ago– but over 1,100 American troops have given their lives since then. We are no closer than we were in January, when the President decided to disregard key elements of the Iraq Study Group report and announced the escalation—but over 600 additional American troops have died. Without real deadlines to force Iraqis to compromise, they will not compromise—if they are ever to compromise—and if they won’t—it won’t make a difference anyway. No American soldier should die for Iraqi unwillingness to compromise and solve their differences. That’s not what we sent them to Iraq for.

    And there’s no reason to expect any progress by September. One third of the Cabinet, including the major Sunni party, is currently boycotting the government. And Iraq’s parliament—which can’t even muster a quorum more than once every week or two—is reportedly still going on vacation for the entire month of August without having met their schedule. That guarantees that they’re not going to any significant progress before September. The front page of Sunday’s Washington Post told us all we need to know: that “the Iraqi government is unlikely to meet any of the political and security goals or timelines President Bush set for it in January when he announced a major shift in U.S. policy.”

    Time is not on our side. It hasn’t been for a long time – and no escalation can change that.

    The President keeps telling us that we must not abandon the fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq and leave them with a safe haven. We all agree with that. That’s not the issue—that’s just setting up a phony argument, yet another presidential straw man while real men are being killed fighting in Iraq. Let’s be very clear about something: our bill keeps in place those troops necessary to deny Al Qaeda a sanctuary in Iraq. If that is truly the President’s concern, then he should have no problem signing this bill. We must redefine our mission and focus on our vital national interests—and chief among these is fighting Al Qaeda.

    The question is not whether we will redeploy, but when and how – and how we will protect American interests.

    It’s wrong to sacrifice over 100 American troops per month as we stretch our military past the breaking point for a policy we know won’t work.

    It’s wrong to keep spending over $10 billion dollars each month — $456 billion in total for this war of choice. We cannot continue telling Americans that refereeing an Iraqi civil war is worth more in our blood and treasure than it would have been to provide Head-Start for a year to 60 million of our children, or to provide nearly 4 years of health care to every child in America, or to provide a tenfold increase in foreign aid to express the real face and values of America all over the world. In fact, for all of this money spent in Iraq we could’ve funded a Middle East development plan nearly four times as large as the Marshall Plan, a plan that would’ve helped reduce radicalism rather than enflame it.

    We cannot continue to squander our moral authority and offer Al Qaeda a greater recruiting tool than they could ever hope to create for themselves.

    We must work together to find a new bipartisan majority of conscience, a pragmatic and patriotic commitment to work across party lines to right a failed policy in Iraq and leave in place a sustainable strategy. And I’m pleased to see that many here in the Senate have finally come together and demonstrated the will to do so. I urge my Republican colleagues to join Senators Hagel and Smith in demonstrating the moral courage to stand as Americans first, not members of either party, behind our shared national interest.

    While some insist on viewing this through the prism of victory or defeat over an enemy in battle, that simply isn’t the reality of Iraq today. This is a chaotic society, a failed state. The real question is: how do we work together to craft a strategy that is sustainable militarily, politically, financially, and diplomatically? That will hold Iraq together and protect American interests?

    There are areas of broad bipartisan agreement available for those willing to do the hard work of building consensus. First, most of us would like to see some residual troop presence even after redeployment next spring. All of us are concerned that our redeployment from Iraq must not happen in a manner that draws us back into the conflict at a later date – and we ought to be working together now to lay the groundwork for not just the next few months but several years down the road in Iraq..

    There is also broad agreement that we must refocus our mission on what ought to be our core objective: fighting terrorists. Instead, we’re creating more than we kill every day that we stay in Iraq. Refocusing the mission means that American troops should be hunting and killing Al Qaeda, not being killed on patrol through the streets of Baghdad. It means training Iraqis to patrol Iraqi streets. We must refocus our mission on preventing this war from spreading into a regional conflict and deterring foreign intervention, not—as some in this body have suggested—starting that regional conflict ourselves with military strikes into Iran.

    Finally, we must embark on a major diplomatic outreach to restore America’s influence and credibility in the Middle East. In fact, I feel so strongly about this that I will introduce an amendment asking the Senate to go on record supporting a standing conference to reclaim the diplomatic initiative in Iraq and throughout the region.

    And make no mistake: Iraq may be our primary security concern in the region, but it is far from the only one. This debate should be part of that larger framework. In Lebanon, the Siniora government is hanging on by a thread as it confronts Sunni extremists sympathetic to Al Qaeda in the north and Shia extremists led by an empowered Hezbollah in the south. Iran and Syria have stepped into the vacuum, leading reconstruction efforts after the last war — and now re-arming Hezbollah for the next one. The Palestinians have just fought a brief civil war that has left an emboldened Hamas in control of Gaza – and again, Iran and Syria stand poised to take advantage.

    These events should not have taken us by surprise – King Abdullah of Jordan loudly warned of three civil wars last year. Yet time and again, we seem to be taken by surprise when events on the ground spin out of control, left scrambling to patch together an ad hoc response from half a world away. This cannot continue.

    We need a reliable multi-lateral regional forum for preventing these situations from becoming crises — and for responding when they do. That’s why we must lead the effort to convene Iraq’s leaders, key regional players, neighboring governments, and international institutions like the UN, EU and NATO to work collectively to achieve the sustainable political solution necessary to bring stability to Iraq, address regional conflicts, including in Israel/Palestine and Lebanon, and create the framework for a new long term regional security alliance.

    I’ve suggested what I hope will be the outlines of a new pragmatic consensus that leaves us on stronger footing to fight terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere and to emerge from this war as strong, as secure, and as well-respected in the world as we can be.

    All that remains now is hard work—standing for our principles, hammering out compromise, and forcing this President and this Administration to finally face the core reality that have long been clear to many of us: diplomatically, militarily, strategically, morally—we need a new strategy in Iraq.

    We need to reach for the best traditions of the Senate and look back to the bipartisan accomplishments of men like Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg, who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and worked closely with a Democratic President, Harry Truman, to create a new world order and a winning strategy in the Cold War.

    They cooperated on a series of institutions and treaties—NATO, the IMF, the UN Charter, and the Marshall Plan—that would outlive them both. I want to read you something a Chaplain said at Vandenberg’s funeral in 1951: “We thank Thee that in the gathering storm of aggression which now rages, Thy servant Arthur H. Vandenberg, in a time that called for greatness, grew into greatness.”

    We are a long way from Arthur Vandenberg, from politics that stop at the water’s edge. But this too is a time that calls for greatness. I urge my colleagues to seize this opportunity to work together to craft a better policy in Iraq—now, and not in September. That is what this moment calls for, and we cannot let it pass without taking immediate action to make things right.

    5 Responses to “John Kerry: New Iraq Policy Can’t Wait Until September”

    1. Part of the tragedy of G.W. Bush is that America is in a position in which it can only do an immoral thing. JK has been saying for over a year that it is immoral for Members of Congress to vote for a policy that they privately think is failing and thus wasting the lives and limbs of American troops.
      On the other hand, as Michaelvdg pointed out yesterday, leaving behind a regional bloodbath may be immoral also. (what you are currently seeing now on tv is tame to what might come) I ask: How do you tell an Iraqi to be the first to die in the coming regional war?

    2. Those cute little Senators are so coy. “Oh I’ll do it with you in Septemebr, but I couldn’t possibly do it today. I’m just not ready yet.”

      Stand them down today, and move them back to their bases. Sixty days from now, start loading the moving vans. During that sixty days we’ll know exactly how immoral our leaving will be by watching how the void starts to fill.

      Our staying ensures more door to door combat in an environment where combatants knowingly intermix with innocent women and children insuring their death and our culpability. In our knowledge of this happening every U.S. citizen becomes complicit in the mayhem transpiring on both sides.

    3. Whenever Kerry makes a speech I see the same guy make a similar speech in 1971 where he asked:
      “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?”

      Talk about having a flashback.

    4. Picture this, a party of over 2,000 people gone terribly out of control. Police arrived, arrested the trouble makers, took away all alcohol beverages and left a few police there on standby. What do you think will happen to that party afterwards? In case it was forgotten, the fall of Saddam Hussein did not cause any riots between Sunnis and Shiites. They were holding together very well for a long time until the bombing of the mosque by al-Qaeda. Iraqis will not be killing Iraqis for no reason when the party is over. It is irresponsible to stay. Staying in Iraq is creating chaos. American troops (alcohol) encourage excuses for terrorists (trouble makers) to fan fighting among Iraqis (party goers). Beef up intelligence on al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups while leaving Iraq to station over the horizon is both responsible and best served the region. What to win and what to lose are for Iraqis to decide. American responsibility bound seems to be keeping foreign fighters out of Iraq. Time may not be what their politicians need if they just could have their country back first. In contrary, specify the mission for the first time could actual stop the genocide not to create one. Conditions have to change before progress can be made. To no offense, it is a choice and republicans still chose to run on empty until September.

    5. […] speech on the Senate floor in the Iraq War, telling fellow members of the Senate, ” If you know this policy is broken now, don’t wait until September – fix it now.” Meanwhile, […]