Senator John Kerry spoke this last Saturday night at a town hall meeting in Natick, Massachusetts. The subject was the war in Iraq. Democrafty of www.welovejohnkerry.com
and I have been transcribing the audio recording of the meeting (which was originally posted at Firedoglake
). Here are Senator Kerry's opening remarks. To set the stage for the Q&A session, he focused on the need for a new kind of dialogue on national security and a more realistic engagement with the Middle East -- both of which require that the U.S. government and Americans in general set aside simplistic thinking and take the time to understand what is actually going on in Iraq and in the larger Muslim world. In that vein, Sen. Kerry devoted the bulk of his remarks to describing the historical roots of sectarian violence in Iraq and the strategic missteps the U.S. has made in the region, starting with the Bush Administration's failure to understand the deep and dangerous faultlines that have now been opened up as a result of the U.S. invasion. He also spoke about next moves the Democrats can make to continue to push for a timeline for withdrawal. We'll post the Q&A which followed as soon as it's transcribed. INTRODUCTION
Senator Kerry: Thank you. Thank you very, very much. First of all, Karen I just wanted to -- Karen, get back here so I can brag on you for a minute! Ladies and gentlemen, I think many of you know this because a lot of you are part of town committees and some of you on city committees and so forth, but it's a tough job herding cats. [Laughter]. Ah, getting everybody energized and making sure that we live up to the sort of state process. And I admire those who do that; I've been involved in some at the earliest level, and I really do thank you for what you're doing. Your leadership is terrific, we all appreciate it, and I thank the Natick Town committee - thank you so much for putting this together. [APPLAUSE].
And Stephanie, thank you so much. It's a privilege to be here at this school. I don't know how many of you know this, this was the, I think was the first and only independent secondary school for the arts - alone, in the nation, at first. Am I correct? And subsequently -- obviously at first women only, and then subsequently decided to transition, as most places have, to co-educational -- but what a spectacular thing! And nothing is more of a statement than that than that brilliant voice of Kevin here, who did a brilliant job, and we thank him, and – Kevin, where are you [APPLAUSE.]
What a great stage and theater! I was privileged in high school to be in a couple of plays, and this is a really superb [unintelligible], let me tell you, from all those makeshift curtains people used to do, and, you know, they'd drop at the wrong times and so forth. Anyway, thank you all. This is a remarkable statement about your commitment - each and every one of you. Because this is about as glorious a spring day as I've seen in a while, and the Red Sox are playing to boot. So you are really superb to be here this afternoon, to talk about, obviously, a critical subject.
Let me get right into it, because that's what we came here to talk about, and that's what we want to do. And I'll try to be as concise as I can in some opening introductory comments, because I think, obviously, the best thing we can do is spend having a dialog. And I want to answer your questions and have a chance to really share the thinking of where we are here. TOWARD A NEW DIALOGUE ON NATIONAL SECURITY
Two days ago, I gave a speech at SAIS, which is the international school, the School for International Affairs at Johns Hopkins in Washington, under the banner of a new organization that I helped found, called the American Security Project. Which has on its board Former Senator George Mitchell, Former Senator Warren Rudman, Gary Hart, and others - including former four-star general Daniel Christman of West Point, and Admiral Lee Gunn who was head of naval planning and logistics -- General Claudia Kennedy, the highest-serving woman in the armed services. General Tony Zinni, former Sec Com commander, and others.
"It is no accident that seven months after 9/11, seven out of 10 Americans believed that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11."
I put these people together because we really need to re-think America's entire thinking process and ability to be able to cope with major foreign policy issues. It is no accident that seven months after 9/11, seven out of 10 Americans believed that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. No accident. It has to do with cheap sloganeering, and the purposeful deception, and the sort of, you know, wasteland that we've had in terms of real dialogue and discourse and sharing with the American people. And with a calculated effort, which played out through 2001 all the way through the presidential race in which I took part, to scare Americans, and to substitute fear for thinking. And to convince Americans that somehow it is better to fight them over there than here.
"We are ... creating more terrorists than we are killing in Iraq."
That is the rationale for what we're doing today. And it is such a fallacy, such a dangerous, simplistic approach to what is happening that it threatens the legitimacy of our country's interests in every single regard, and on almost every other issue of importance. Obviously, there is a complete and total twisted, dangerous tautology in that notion that it's safer to fight them over there than here when our own CIA is telling us today that we are, in fact, through our policy in Iraq, creating more terrorists than we are killing in Iraq. Creating more people that want to fight us than we are killing in Iraq. [APPLAUSE] THE FIGHT TO CHANGE COURSE
I long ago came to the conclusion - and I'm proud of the effort I've made to lead that fight in the United States Congress - not one American soldier should be killed or maimed or shed their blood or put at risk for the purpose of allowing Iraqi politicians to avoid making their compromises and assuming responsibility for their country. It’s that simple. [APPLAUSE]
It's been a tortured journey, obviously, to sort of get where we are today. Last summer, in August, I led -- I wrote the amendment and I brought the amendment to the floor to set a timeline for the beginning of a withdrawal, and for the ultimate withdrawal of our troops. I remember a front-page story in the New York Times that vilified me for doing it. There were backroom chatter that, you know, reporters can always find; some people will stick a knife in from behind you - and they did. People said, "What? What's Kerry doing? Why's he doing this? It's a terrible vote for us, we don't want to do this." And criticisms from Democrats, that we were forcing Democrats to actually take the position that they were unwilling, at that point, to take.
Well, we had the vote, and I'm proud to say we got, I think it was 13 or 14 senators joined together to say that was the right move. I'm even prouder that, come November, four months later, three months later, that was the closing argument of the Democratic party. And everyone was then in the position of trying to say, "Yes, that's what we ought to do.” And that's what the American people voted for - was to have a change that began the withdrawal of our troops and began the shift of responsibility to the Iraqis. That was democracy at its best - people reclaiming accountability.
Again, this year, we came to the point where, just recently, last month, we had a vote. Russ Feingold and I brought the amendment to the floor in order to make it clear that we should stop funding down the road - which was no different – this wasn’t tearing the rug out from under our soldiers, which is always the argument you hear - that's not what we did. What we did was, we gave the President - and some people didn't like the fact that we gave the President this - but we gave an element of discretion at the end of the year, if we were going to complete the training and the training could be completed and we're actually showing progress, we're moving down the road, the President would have the discretion to be able to leave some troops there to sort of finish the training, or the discretion to be able to leave some troops, special forces particularly, to be able to chase Al-Qaida. Or the discretion to be able to leave some forces to be able to protect American facilities and forces that were doing the two things I've just mentioned. That's logical.
But I'll tell you, I've been to Iraq at least five times now. I've met with all the leaders. I'm now chairman of the Mideast-South Asia subcommittee. And in that capacity, I've met with every single one of these guys - President Mubarak, King Abdullah, Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Prime Minister Olmert, Siniora of Lebanon, Assad, twice now, in the last few years, I've met with Assad in Syria, and I have a pretty darn good sense of what is possible and what is not possible. Of what our interests are and what they aren't. Of what has happened in the Middle East as a consequence of our being there, versus what would happen under a different structure of our being there.
And everything I've heard from these leaders, my friends, convinces me that they're desperate to see us change our policy and have a more responsive policy to the region and to the issues that really matter. This administration's lost credibility, they've lost leverage, they've lost the moral high ground, if you will - and the ability to be able to move us to a place that makes us safer here at home. And that's the bottom-line motivation of my policy, and of what all of us ought to be thinking about. How - you know, that is what foreign policy is; it's the extension of your politics into the foreign arena. It is the accomplishment of your needs as a nation through the art of the possible in terms of foreign relationships.
And there are interests. And there are challenges. Let me just say a couple of words about those.
Chris: Senator Kerry? [unintelligible]
JK: Can I just finish up for a second?
JK: We're going to have plenty of time to have...
[LOT OF CROWD RUMBLING]
JK: That's all right. That's all right, folks. [Unintelligible] listen. Let him ask a question. What’s the question?
Chris: Just a simple question.
Chris: Because I know we all feel we really want to be [unintelligible] Iraq, we don't want to, you know, our [unintelligible] as a nation is not to, you know, be militaristic, we just want to, you know, [unintelligible], but the problem here is that, you know, I'm reading signs outside here protesting. They're saying that over 100,000 civilians may have died in Iraq over the last five years. And, you know, quite possibly – half a million. Is that true?
JK: Quite possibly what?
Chris: Half a million. Is that true, Senator?
JK: Did I - what's your name?
Chris: Ah, Chris.
JK: Chris. What do you do, do you mind if I ask?
JK: Thank you. Well, Chris, there are different reports from different groups that you have - Amnesty International has put out a report, the UN has put out a report, there are international groups that have put out reports - and the estimates vary as to how many civilians have been killed. But they do range from, you know, the 50,000s up to half a million. I've seen those studies, I've seen those analyses. The problem is, there's no way to completely measure, because people are disappearing in the dead of night. People are mass-grave buried. People are disappearing in basements in areas that we don't even get into. And the militia on all sides are engaged in a kind of ethnic cleansing right now that is, you know, rampant. So nobody has, nobody's going say - I'm not going to stand in front of you and tell you I've got the exact accurate figure. But I am going to tell you that, yes, by the tens of thousands, there's no question that that’s -
Chris: Tens of thousands. Do you think it's in the hundred thousands?
JK: I personally believe it's well over 100,000 by now. Yes, I do.
Chris: Thank you.
JK: Now, let me just come back quickly to - and then I'll wrap, because I can see you want to get into questions, and I'm happy, actually, I'm happier, to move into the questions; it’s fun.
But let me just tie this in very, very quickly for you. What is going on cannot be ignored -- what is going on in the Middle East - by liberals, or by conservatives. By Democrats, or by Republicans. And what's important, I think, is that we try to get a reality, if you will. A reality based here on sort of facts, and what the real choices are, rather than just emotion or ideology that sometimes cloud those facts. ROOTS OF THE CONFLICT
"There is a major struggle going on in the heart and soul of Islam."
Now, it is a fact that there is a major struggle going on in the heart and soul of Islam. It is a fact that radical extreme fundamentalists within Islam are pursuing a non-ideological jihad that has everything to do with a sort of huge frustration in their disenfranchisement and in other perceptions of their place in life, that is as directed against those governments in the region as it is against us, or against Europe, or anywhere else.
And you can't simplistically talk about "they," which is what our politicians have done. Because "they" is about 60 different Al Qaidas in 60 different countries. And it doesn't allow for the distinction between Shia and Sunni, religious/tribal, this, that - Kurd, Shia, it's hugely complicated. And it goes back deeply into - I don't know how many people read a wonderful book that I read a few years ago about Gertrude Bell, The Desert Queen, which talks about sort of how Iraq became Iraq, this whole evolution, and how Winston Churchill, and obviously, Lawrence of Arabia, Gertrude Bell, Anglo colonialists sat there and sort of divided the place up and created this thing. And much of what we've done has been done out of ignorance. There's another wonderful book that I commend to you called The Shia Revival by Vali Nasr. It's a brilliant book that lays out the full complexity of what has happened. What has happened -- simplified, and then I'll get into the questions, is this:
"There are people at the highest levels of our government who didn't even understand the difference between Shia and Sunni."
You can go back to the early days of the Prophet Muhammed. And when the Prophet Muhammed died, in succession after that, there was a struggle to see who was going to be the successor. A bunch of people thought that Ali - that his grandson ought to be the immediate successor. But he wasn't. There was a hierarchical thing, and Ali, to his credit, accepted that he wasn't. But there were two intermediaries. And then finally Ali became the Caliph. They were all assassinated. And ultimately, Ali's grandson, a fellow named Hussein, wound up in about 682 in a place called Karbala. And they were assaulted by the [unintelligible] Qum, which is in Iran -- what is now Iran, and from Najaf, in what is now Iraq. Both holy cities to the Shia, to Shiism.
Shiism is a much more emotional, sort of demonstrative, engaged kind of practice of the Muslim faith. And what the Shia - what the Shia have struggled as a minority in their faith throughout their existence. The Shia are the followers of Ali, the people who felt disgruntled in 600, see, that he wasn't then chosen to be Caliph. This has been going on since then, folks.
And I want to tell you there are people at the highest levels of our government who didn't even understand the difference between Shia and Sunni when they got into this.
So they wind up traveling to Iran, guess what happens to them, they get attacked by the Sunni. And every single one of them was wiped out in that desert. In fact there's a courageous story of how they charged at the enemy, knowing they didn't have the water, didn't have the weapons, didn't have the numbers, they charged in the desert and they all got slaughtered and they all got their heads cut off. And they took their heads and they put them on posts in Najaf. And they took the head of Hussein, the grandson of Ali, and took it to Damascus. Interestingly enough it was the sister of Hussein who followed in the sort of Shia succession and brought this to life for all of our time, even to this day. You know how many people were in the desert with them, how many followers there were? 72. Does that ring a bell? In the context of martyrdom and 72 virgins that await you if you die as a martyr? 72.
This all goes back to there. And then folks have been killing each other ever since over this differential. Including as recently as 1990, when George Herbert Walker Bush incited them to rebel, and they did rebel, believing they could knock out Saddam Hussein, and we then pulled the rug out from under them, sent signals to the counter, and tens of thousands of them were killed brutally by Saddam Hussein.
This is current history. This is a modern hatred.
So that's what's going on. We come in, we liberate the country, we kick out Saddam Hussein, without any plan, without any planning, without any - without sufficient numbers of troops, you could run the list of mistakes, but most significantly, we strip away the Baathists and the legitimate civil servants who have the ability to deliver services, and the Sunni, who are a 20% minority in Iraq, suddenly find themselves for the first time in that thousand-year history - plus, thirteen hundred years -- they find themselves being governed by the Shia, whom we have unleashed and given at the ballot box what they couldn't achieve in any other way all of those years.
That's what we're in the middle of, my friends. A civil struggle for power. And I sat with Mr Maliki and the Speaker of the House and all these other people, and you could look at them and you could say, "You gotta make this decision and you gotta do this and that," and I'll tell you this - as long as the United States military security blanket is sitting there, to them, to know that we're sort of the backstop in the way that they are, they don't have to make a serious decision about anything, they can continue to unleash their militias and continue to fight each other, and that's why I intend to continue to fight to set a date to say our troops have done their job, it's time -- [APPLAUSE].
I don't want to do it in a vacuum. I'm not - I don't think I'm stupid.
"This country must never again confuse the warriors with the war."
I remember flying into Baghdad, and the captain of a C-130 – he was a pilot, and he says “Senator” -- we were up on the flight deck and he looks back at me and he says, "Senator, make sure whatever you guys do, that 20 years from now, this was worth it for us." That's at stake in this, folks. I remember what it was like to be in a battle, in a war where it wasn't made worth it. Not by the country, not by the policy leaders, not by anybody. And one of the lessons we learned back there - a bright-line lesson was, this country must never again confuse the warriors with the war. It is critical that the soldiers -- [APPLAUSE]THERE IS NO MILITARY SOLUTION
So I think it's important that we try to find a way to give that meaning and the question is how do you do that now when you have this mess, this infernal mess that we have?
Secondly, we also have interests in the region. We do have interests. Israel; beyond Israel, our relationships with the other countries. Sunni - the Sunni minority who live in that country, now that it's followed this course, not simply be abandoned to ethnic cleansing or further chaos.
And the issue now is how do you give life to what General Petraeus has said, General Pace has said, General Abazeid has said, Condi Rice has said, the President has said, and we have said, which is that there is no military solution, there is only a political and diplomatic solution. And what burns me up, my friends, is for all the talk of that, there is no legitimate, high, heavy lift diplomatically taking place right now that is the kind of thing we saw with Jim Baker who traveled 15 times to Syria just to get Assad to consent to what they were doing in Desert Storm, or Henry Kissinger with the shuttle diplomacy and the efforts in China or Vietnam -- nothing like that, nothing that closely resembles it. And the result is, they're drifting, the whole place is drifting.
I'll just close this opening by telling you this. I was in the West Bank the day that President Abbas was elected, three years ago. And I was the first person to meet with him, literally the first person to meet with him the morning after he was elected. I walked into Ramallah, into the headquarters, and he looked at me - we spent about an hour and a half together and he says, "You know, I know what you and the rest of the world expects of me. I have to disarm Hamas. Look around you, Senator. You tell me how I'm supposed do that," he says. "I don't have any radios, I don't have any cars, I don't have any police officers, I don't have any police -- not that have really been trained; how am I supposed to do that?"
I'll tell you, that was the moment that I felt sort of the greatest pang of having lost the presidency -- was sitting there when I knew what I could've done to have made a difference in helping to create a legitimate partner for peace in [unintelligible]
And nothing happened, folks. Nothing happened for months after that. And we effectively sort of stood back while Hamas understood Politics 101. They got up earlier, they stayed up later, they worked harder, they delivered the services to the people, and they had the money coming through some of these other Arab countries and charities, and the rest of the world did not provide [unintelligible] and the others with a chance to fight back.
That's the story of what's happened there. The lack of engagement, the lack of reality, the lack of understanding of what's at stake and of our options.
And it wasn't - it was also being repeated in Lebanon, when I went there. I found out that Iran and Syria were putting $500 million in and reconstructing Lebanon after the war. They had put a Hezbollah flag on every building that they intended to rebuild, and they were doing the rebuilding, not the government.
The minute I got back I called the White House to Stephen Hadley and said, “You guys have got to get some money in here, you've got to get going, you've got to get engaged.”
So we got a very complicated situation in front of us. And we are going to keep fighting with all the energy we have. We're going to bring Iraq back somewhere in the next three weeks. We have the defense authorization bill coming up, and we are going to fight for the things that we just fought for a few weeks ago. But without the money involved directly - because it's not appropriations, it's authorization - we could actually hope we make a law. And we believe that, you know, Republicans are beginning to realize that this strategy is a bankrupt strategy and that it's time to change.
So I'll just close by reminding you that when I demonstrated when I came back from Vietnam -- I'll never forget that - it was a presumption that soldiers didn't do that and a presumption that - you know - you don't roil the waters. And I'll never forget, when we marched into Washington, 5000 strong. There was this sort of, you know, standard response to a demonstration, people would yell at you and say, "My country, right or wrong." It didn't matter. You just - do you accept what the president's saying?
And we knew better than that, because we'd seen what that did to our friends and to real human beings.
And I remember one soldier, one woman yelled at one of our guys who was in a wheelchair, a Marine, and said, "Why don't you guys support the troops?" And he looked back at her and he said, "Lady, we are the troops."
And it always reminds me of our responsibility with respect to this war or any war, any time you send anybody to possibly go in harm's way. I'll accept that tension, "My country right or wrong" - I believe in that. When it's right, keep it right. And when it's wrong, make it right. And that's our obligation.