The Path Forward
Speech at Georgetown University By Senator John Kerry
Wednesday 26 October 2005
A few weeks ago I departed Iraq from Mosul. Three Senators and staff were gathered in the forward part of a C-130. In
the middle of the cavernous cargo hold was a simple, aluminum coffin with a small American flag draped over it. We were
bringing another American soldier, just killed, home to his family and final resting place.
The starkness of his coffin in the center of the hold, the silence except for the din of the engines, was a real time
cold reminder of the consequences of decisions for which we Senators share responsibility.
As we arrived in Kuwait, a larger flag was transferred to fully cover his coffin and we joined graves registration
personnel in giving him an honor guard as he was ceremoniously carried from the plane to a waiting truck. When the doors
clunked shut, I wondered why all of America would not be allowed to see him arrive at Dover Air Force Base instead of
hiding him from a nation that deserves to mourn together in truth and in the light of day. His lonely journey compels
all of us to come to grips with our choices in Iraq.
Now more than 2,000 brave Americans have given their lives, and several hundred thousand more have done everything in
their power to wade through the ongoing internal civil strife in Iraq. An Iraq which increasingly is what it was not
before the war - a breeding ground for homegrown terrorists and a magnet for foreign terrorists. We are entering a make
or break six month period, and I want to talk about the steps we must take if we hope to bring our troops home within a
reasonable timeframe from an Iraq that's not permanently torn by irrepressible conflict.
It is never easy to discuss what has gone wrong while our troops are in constant danger. 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 to those risking their lives to speak truth to power. We still do.
In fact, while some say we can't ask tough questions because we are at war, I say no - in a time of war we must ask the
hardest questions of all. It's essential if we want to correct our course and do what's right for our troops instead of
repeating the same mistakes over and over again. No matter what the President says, asking tough questions isn't
pessimism, it's patriotism.
Our troops have served with stunning bravery and resolve. The nobility of their service to country can never be
diminished by the mistakes of politicians. American families who have lost, or who fear the loss, of their loved ones
deserve to know the truth about what we have asked them to do, what we are doing to complete the mission, and what we
are doing to prevent our forces from being trapped in an endless quagmire.
Some people would rather not have that discussion. They'd rather revise and rewrite the story of our involvement in
Iraq for the history books. Tragically, that's become standard fare from an administration that doesn't acknowledge
facts generally, whether they are provided by scientists, whistle-blowers, journalists, military leaders, or the common
sense of every citizen. At a time when many worry that we have become a society of moral relativists, too few worry that
we have a government of factual relativists.
Let's be straight about Iraq. Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who deserves his own special place in hell. But that
was not the reason America went to war.
The country and the Congress were misled into war. I regret that we were not given the truth; as I said more than a
year ago, knowing what we know now, I would not have gone to war in Iraq. And knowing now the full measure of the Bush
Administration's duplicity and incompetence, I doubt there are many members of Congress who would give them the
authority they abused so badly. I know I would not. The truth is, if the Bush Administration had come to the United
States Senate and acknowledged there was no "slam dunk case" that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,
acknowledged that Iraq was not connected to 9/11, there never would have even been a vote to authorize the use of force
- just as there's no vote today to invade North Korea, Iran, Cuba, or a host of regimes we rightfully despise.
I understand that as much as we might wish it, we can't rewind the tape of history. There is, as Robert Kennedy once
said, 'enough blame to go around,' and I accept my share of the responsibility. But the mistakes of the past, no matter
who made them, are no justification for marching ahead into a future of miscalculations and misjudgments and the loss of
American lives with no end in sight. We each have a responsibility, to our country and our conscience, to be honest
about where we should go from here. It is time for those of us who believe in a better course to say so plainly and
We are where we are. The President's flippant "bring it on" taunt to the insurgents has found a meaning beyond his
wildest expectations, a painful reality for troops who went for too long without protective armor. We have traded a
dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure, and the mission the President once declared accomplished remains
To set a new course, we must be strong, smart, and honest. As we learned painfully during the Vietnam War, no president
can sustain a war without the support of the American people. In the case of Iraq, their patience is frayed and nearly
to the breaking point because Americans will not tolerate our troops giving their lives without a clear strategy, and
will not tolerate vague platitudes or rosy scenarios when real answers are urgently needed.
It's time for leaders to be honest that if we do not change course, there is the prospect of indefinite, even endless
conflict - a fate untenable for our troops, and a future unacceptable to the American people and the Iraqis who pray for
the day when a stable Iraq will belong to Iraqis alone.
The path forward will not be easy. The administration's incompetence and unwillingness to listen has made the task that
much harder, and reduced what we can expect to accomplish. But there is a way forward that gives us the best chance both
to salvage a difficult situation in Iraq, and to save American and Iraqi lives. With so much at stake, we must follow
We must begin by acknowledging that our options in Iraq today are not what they should be, or could have been.
The reason is simple. This Administration hitched their wagon to ideologues, excluding those who dared to tell the
truth, even leaders of their own party and the uniformed military.
When after September 11th, flags flew from porches across America and foreign newspaper headlines proclaimed "We're all
Americans now," the Administration could have kept the world united, but they chose not to. And they were wrong.
Instead, they pushed allies away, isolated America, and lost leverage we desperately need today.
When they could have demanded and relied on accurate instead of manipulated intelligence, they chose not to. They were
wrong - and instead they sacrificed our credibility at home and abroad.
When they could have given the inspectors time to discover whether Saddam Hussein actually had weapons of mass
destruction, when they could have paid attention to Ambassador Wilson's report, they chose not to. And they were wrong.
Instead they attacked him, and they attacked his wife to justify attacking Iraq. We don't know yet whether this will
prove to be an indictable offense in a court of law, but for it, and for misleading a nation into war, they will be
indicted in the high court of history. History will judge the invasion of Iraq one of the greatest foreign policy
misadventures of all time.
But the mistakes were not limited to the decision to invade. They mounted, one upon another.
When they could have listened to General Shinseki and put in enough troops to maintain order, they chose not to. They
were wrong. When they could have learned from George Herbert Walker Bush and built a genuine global coalition, they
chose not to. They were wrong. When they could have implemented a detailed State Department plan for reconstructing
post-Saddam Iraq, they chose not to. And they were wrong again. When they could have protected American forces by
guarding Saddam Hussein's ammo dumps where there were weapons of individual destruction, they exposed our young men and
women to the ammo that now maims and kills them because they chose not to act. And they were wrong. When they could have
imposed immediate order and structure in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam, Rumsfeld shrugged his shoulders, said Baghdad
was safer than Washington, DC and chose not to act. He was wrong. When the Administration could have kept an Iraqi army
selectively intact, they chose not to. They were wrong. When they could have kept an entire civil structure functioning
to deliver basic services to Iraqi citizens, they chose not to. They were wrong. When they could have accepted the
offers of the United Nations and individual countries to provide on the ground peacekeepers and reconstruction
assistance, they chose not to. They were wrong. When they should have leveled with the American people that the
insurgency had grown, they chose not to. Vice President Cheney even absurdly claimed that the "insurgency was in its
last throes." He was wrong.
Now after all these mistakes, the Administration accuses anyone who proposes a better course of wanting to cut and run.
But we are in trouble today precisely because of a policy of cut and run. This administration made the wrong choice to
cut and run from sound intelligence and good diplomacy; to cut and run from the best military advice; to cut and run
from sensible war time planning; to cut and run from their responsibility to properly arm and protect our troops; to cut
and run from history's lessons about the Middle East; to cut and run from common sense.
And still today they cut and run from the truth.
This difficult road traveled demands the unvarnished truth about the road ahead.
To those who suggest we should withdraw all troops immediately - I say No. A precipitous withdrawal would invite civil
and regional chaos and endanger our own security. But to those who rely on the overly simplistic phrase "we will stay as
long as it takes," who pretend this is primarily a war against Al Qaeda, and who offer halting, sporadic, diplomatic
engagement, I also say - No, that will only lead us into a quagmire.
The way forward in Iraq is not to pull out precipitously or merely promise to stay "as long as it takes." To undermine
the insurgency, we must instead simultaneously pursue both a political settlement and the withdrawal of American combat
forces linked to specific, responsible benchmarks. At the first benchmark, the completion of the December elections, we
can start the process of reducing our forces by withdrawing 20,000 troops over the course of the holidays.
The Administration must immediately give Congress and the American people a detailed plan for the transfer of military
and police responsibilities on a sector by sector basis to Iraqis so the majority of our combat forces can be withdrawn.
No more shell games, no more false reports of progress, but specific and measurable goals.
It is true that our soldiers increasingly fight side by side with Iraqis willing to put their lives on the line for a
better future. But history shows that guns alone do not end an insurgency. The real struggle in Iraq - Sunni versus
Shiia - will only be settled by a political solution, and no political solution can be achieved when the antagonists can
rely on the indefinite large scale presence of occupying American combat troops.
In fact, because we failed to take advantage of the momentum of our military victory, because we failed to deliver
services and let Iraqis choose their leaders early on, our military presence in vast and visible numbers has become part
of the problem, not the solution.
And our generals understand this. General George Casey, our top military commander in Iraq, recently told Congress that
our large military presence "feeds the notion of occupation" and "extends the amount of time that it will take for Iraqi
security forces to become self-reliant." And Richard Nixon's Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, breaking a thirty year
silence, writes, "Our presence is what feeds the insurgency, and our gradual withdrawal would feed the confidence and
the ability of average Iraqis to stand up to the insurgency." No wonder the Sovereignty Committee of the Iraqi
Parliament is already asking for a timetable for withdrawal of our troops; without this, Iraqis believe Iraq will never
be its own country.
We must move aggressively to reduce popular support for the insurgency fed by the perception of American occupation. An
open-ended declaration to stay 'as long as it takes' lets Iraqi factions maneuver for their own political advantage by
making us stay as long as they want, and it becomes an excuse for billions of American tax dollars to be sent to Iraq
and siphoned off into the coffers of cronyism and corruption.
It will be hard for this Administration, but it is essential to acknowledge that the insurgency will not be defeated
unless our troop levels are drawn down, starting immediately after successful elections in December. The draw down of
troops should be tied not to an arbitrary timetable, but to a specific timetable for transfer of political and security
responsibility to Iraqis and realignment of our troop deployment. That timetable must be real and strict. The goal
should be to withdraw the bulk of American combat forces by the end of next year. If the Administration does its work
correctly, that is achievable.
Our strategy must achieve a political solution that deprives the Sunni-dominated insurgency of support by giving the
Sunnis a stake in the future of their country. The Constitution, opposed by more than two thirds of Sunnis, has
postponed and even exacerbated the fundamental crisis of Iraq. The Sunnis want a strong secular national government that
fairly distributes oil revenues. Shiites want to control their own region and resources in a loosely united Islamic
state. And Kurds simply want to be left alone. Until sufficient compromise is hammered out, a Sunni base can not be
created that isolates the hard core Baathists and jihaadists and defuses the insurgency.
The Administration must use all of the leverage in America's arsenal - our diplomacy, the presence of our troops, and
our reconstruction money - to convince Shiites and Kurds to address legitimate Sunni concerns and to make Sunnis accept
the reality that they will no longer dominate Iraq. We cannot and should not do this alone.
The Administration must bring to the table the full weight of all of Iraq's Sunni neighbors. They also have a large
stake in a stable Iraq. Instead of just telling us that Iraq is falling apart, as the Saudi foreign minister did
recently, they must do their part to put it back together. We've proven ourselves to be a strong ally to many nations in
the region. Now it's their turn to do their part.
The administration must immediately call a conference of Iraq's neighbors, Britain, Turkey and other key NATO allies,
and Russia. All of these countries have influence and ties to various parties in Iraq. Together, we must implement a
collective strategy to bring the parties in Iraq to a sustainable political compromise. This must include obtaining
mutual security guarantees among Iraqis themselves. Shiite and Kurdish leaders need to make a commitment not to
perpetrate a bloodbath against Sunnis in the post-election period. In turn, Sunni leaders must end support for the
insurgents, including those who are targeting Shiites. And the Kurds must explicitly commit themselves not to declare
To enlist the support of Iraq's Sunni neighbors, we should commit to a new regional security structure that strengthens
the security of the countries in the region and the wider community of nations. This requires a phased process including
improved security assistance programs, joint exercises, and participation by countries both outside and within the
Ambassador Khalilzad is doing a terrific job trying broker a better deal between the Iraqi parties. But he can't do it
alone. The President should immediately appoint a high level envoy to maximize our diplomacy in Iraq and the region.
Showing Sunnis the benefits that await them if they continue to participate in the process of building Iraq can go a
long way toward achieving stability. We should press these countries to set up a reconstruction fund specifically for
the majority Sunni areas. It's time for them to deliver on their commitments to provide funds to Iraq. Even short-term
improvements, like providing electricity and supplying diesel fuel - an offer that the Saudis have made but have yet to
fulfill - can make a real difference.
We need to jump start our own lagging reconstruction efforts by providing the necessary civilian personnel to do the
job, standing up civil-military reconstruction teams throughout the country, streamlining the disbursement of funds to
the provinces so they can deliver services, expanding job creation programs, and strengthening the capacity of
We must make it clear now that we do not want permanent military bases in Iraq, or a large combat force on Iraqi soil
indefinitely. And as we withdraw our combat troops, we should be prepared to keep a substantially reduced level of
American forces in Iraq, at the request of the Iraqi government, for the purpose of training their security forces. Some
combat ready American troops will still be needed to safeguard the Americans engaged in that training, but they should
be there to do that and to provide a back stop to Iraqi efforts, not to do the fighting for Iraqis.
Simultaneously, the President needs to put the training of Iraqi security forces on a six month wartime footing and
ensure that the Iraqi government has the budget to deploy them. The Administration must stop using the requirement that
troops be trained in-country as an excuse for refusing offers made by Egypt, Jordan, France and Germany to do more.
This week, long standing suspicions of Syrian complicity in destabilizing Lebanon were laid bare by the community of
nations. And we know Syria has failed to take the aggressive steps necessary to stop former Baathists and foreign
fighters from using its territory as a transit route into Iraq. The Administration must prod the new Iraqi government to
ask for a multinational force to help protect Iraq's borders until a capable national army is formed. Such a force, if
sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council, could attract participation by Iraq's neighbors and countries like
India and would be a critical step in stemming the tide of insurgents and money into Iraq.
Finally, and without delay, we must fundamentally alter the deployment of American troops. While Special Operations
must continue to pursue specific intelligence leads, the vast majority of our own troops should be in rear guard,
garrisoned status for security backup. We do not need to send young Americans on search and destroy missions that invite
alienation and deepen the risks they face. Iraqis should police Iraqis. Iraqis should search Iraqi homes. Iraqis should
stand up for Iraq.
We will never be as safe as we should be if Iraq continues to distract us from the most important war we must win - the
war on Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and the terrorists that are resurfacing even in Afghanistan. These are the make or
break months for Iraq. The President must take a new course, and hold Iraqis accountable. If the President still
refuses, Congress must insist on a change in policy. If we do take these steps, there is no reason this difficult
process can not be completed in 12-15 months. There is no reason Iraq cannot be sufficiently stable, no reason the
majority of our combat troops can't soon be on their way home, and no reason we can't take on a new role in Iraq, as an
ally not an occupier, training Iraqis to defend themselves. Only then will we have provided leadership equal to our
soldiers' sacrifice - and that is what they deserve.