The Moment of Truth In Iraq
By John Kerry
Des Moines Register
Thirty five years ago this spring, I testified before the United States Senate. I was a 27-year-old Vietnam veteran who believed the war had to come to an end.
It was 1971. Three years earlier, Richard Nixon had been elected president with a secret plan for peace — a plan he kept secret from the American people as young Americans continued to die.
We were a country deeply divided. Many people did not understand or agree with my act of public dissent. To them, supporting the troops meant continuing to support the war, or at least keeping my mouth shut.
I couldn’t remain silent. I felt compelled to speak out about thousands of Americans losing their lives in Vietnam while politicians in Washington schemed to save their political reputations.
Thirty-five years later, in another war gone off course, history is repeating itself. It is both a right and an obligation for Americans today to disagree with a president who is wrong, a policy that is wrong, and a course in Iraq that weakens the nation.
True patriots must defend the right of dissent and listen to the dissenters. Dissenters are not always right, but it is always a warning sign when they are branded unpatriotic by politicians trying to avoid accountability. Those who are right should never fear public scrutiny.
The War in Vietnam and the War in Iraq are now converging in too many tragic respects.
As in Vietnam, we engaged militarily in Iraq based on official deception. And as in Vietnam, we have stayed and fought and died even though it is time for us to go.
Half of the service members listed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall died after America’s leaders knew our strategy would not work. It was immoral then and it would be immoral now to engage in the same delusion. We want democracy in Iraq, but Iraqis must want it as much as we do. Our valiant soldiers can’t bring democracy to Iraq if Iraq’s leaders are unwilling to make the compromises that democracy requires.
As our generals have said, the war cannot be won militarily. It must be won politically. No American soldier should be sacrificed because Iraqi politicians refuse to resolve their ethnic and political differences.
It’s time to get tough with Iraqi politicians. Iraqi leaders have responded only to deadlines—a deadline to transfer authority to a provisional government, and a deadline to hold three elections. It was the most intense 11th hour pressure that pushed aside Prime Minister Jaafari and brought forward a more acceptable candidate.
We need to set another deadline to extricate our troops and get Iraq up on its own two feet. Iraqi politicians should have until May 22nd to put together an effective unity government or we will immediately withdraw our military. If Iraqis aren’t willing to build it by then, they’re probably not willing to build one at all and the civil war will only get worse.
If Iraq’s leaders succeed in putting together a government, then we must agree on another deadline: a schedule for withdrawing American combat forces in 2006. Like Senator Harkin, I believe that would empower the new Iraqi leadership, put Iraqis in the position of running their own country and undermine support for the insurgency, which is fueled in large measure by the majority of Iraqis who want us to leave their country.
I believe as strongly as I did 35 years ago that the most important way to support our troops is to tell the truth. Patriotism does not belong to those who defend a president’s position — it belongs to those who defend our country, in battle and in dissent. That is a lesson of Vietnam worth remembering today – and a lesson worth applying to Iraq.