"Clean up this mess"

Sen. John Kerry says that President Bush will never be effective in Iraq until he first breaks down his wall of arrogance.

Published June 29, 2005 8:00AM (EDT)

Tonight President Bush will speak to the nation about the situation in Iraq. And I think we all have a sense of what he'll say. He'll talk about the march of democracy and the courage of our troops across the world. He'll speak with pride about Iraqi elections and the end of tyranny, and stress the importance of fighting terror. And that's fine -- we all agree with that -- but those words alone won't be enough to improve a situation clearly headed in a perilous direction. We need new, strong policy to get it right in Iraq.

Today, we have no realistic strategy to reduce the risks to our soldiers and achieve our goals. While our military has done a superb job, our civilian leadership has not, and our soldiers are paying the price every day. We need a realistic plan for success.

To do that, we must tear down the wall of arrogance. When the Vice President absurdly claims the "insurgency is in its last throes," he insults the common sense and intelligence of the American people, and diminishes our stature in the world. And how can we expect the Iraqi people to take us seriously and do their part when the White House says the insurgency is fading, yet they live in constant fear, the explosions waking them up at night, reminding Iraqis of the danger inherent in even the short walk to work or school the next morning.

While we shouldn't dwell on mistakes, we need to understand their consequences on our ability to effectively move forward. With allies reading the Downing Street memo, and the American people realizing the rationalization for this war changed midstream, it becomes that much harder to rally the collective strength of the nation and the world to our cause.

We have to acknowledge the past to overcome it, because the truth is the stubbornness of this administration matters. It hurts our chances for success. It leads to frustrated expectations at home, makes it so much more difficult for the Iraqi people to embrace this cause, and makes it so much easier for sidelined nations to turn their back on a common interest and say: "OK, it's their deal."

And the bottom line is that when it comes to war and the safety of American troops, there is no time for excuses. It's time for the administration to tell the truth about what's happening on the ground and open up to new ideas about how to get the job done.

Admitting mistakes is a necessary hurdle and a constructive tool for this administration if it wants to build the strength necessary to get it right in Iraq. Admitting mistakes paves the way for elected officials and the American people to come together to move forward. Admitting mistakes lays the groundwork for a climate of cooperation that allows allies to add to our own strength. Admitting mistakes eases the concerns of the Iraqi people, and helps us make them understand that there will be no success unless they embrace the burden of their own future.

And that includes acknowledging that Iraq today is something it wasn't before the war: a breeding ground for jihadists. Today there are 16,000 to 20,000 insurgents, and the number of jihadists among them is growing. This is a growing challenge, and we need to take immediate steps to address it. Our officer corps reports that every time our troops kill or capture an insurgent, three more step forward to take his place. That is not a compelling strategy for success.

So I hope tonight that we hear something new from the President. I hope the President recognizes that the people demand more than a new communications strategy -- they demand real leadership and a strategy for success in this war that gets our troops home. If the President does this, he will begin to restore the confidence of the American people and the respect of the world. In showing real leadership, he will make clear to the Iraqi people that it's time for them to take the lead.

I also hope the American people understand that there still can be a plan for success in Iraq if we move quickly. The mistakes we have made don't change the fact that our military is the most powerful in the world, and that democracy is one of the world's most powerful ideas. The mistakes don't change the fact that the Iraqi people understand through the powerful memory of generations that they have a unique opportunity to shape their own future. If the President gets serious about getting this right and telling the truth, and the Iraqi people get serious about doing their part and bearing the burden, we can have success in Iraq.

So what can the President say tonight to get things right in Iraq, and put us on the road to success? The President can start by immediately declaring that the United States does not seek bases or any permanent military presence in Iraq. Erasing suspicion of indefinite occupation is critical to eroding support for the insurgency.

Getting it right also means using our overwhelming leverage to get the Iraqis to do their part. Our massive military presence is all that stands between the Iraqi people and complete chaos. Our special forces are protecting Iraqi leaders. With this kind of leverage, it's shocking that the administration allowed six months to go by before including Sunnis in the political process. This was an obvious, crucial prerequisite to success, yet there was no sense of urgency, and minimal pressure applied. It's time for the administration to use its leverage to insist the Iraqis to do their part, establish a truly inclusive political process, and meet the deadlines for finishing the constitution and holding new elections in December.

Getting it right also means putting together a real plan for the training of Iraqi troops and following through on it. This should be our top priority. It's the key to getting our troops home and avoiding a humiliating withdrawal. It's time to move beyond fudging the numbers and finally put the training of Iraqi troops on a true six-month wartime footing, which includes ensuring the Iraqi government has the budget necessary to deploy them. It's also time to stop using the in-country training requirement as an excuse for refusing offers made by Egypt, Jordan, France and Germany to do more. Why would we turn down this opportunity to give our troops the relief they deserve?

Getting it right also means drawing up a detailed plan with the clear milestone of transfer of military and police responsibilities to Iraqis after the December elections. The administration's plan should take into account both political and security objectives, including Iraqi force structure, and be specifically tied to a defined series of tasks and accomplishments. This plan must be more than dates and numbers -- it must make clear to the Iraqi government that American patience is limited.

The Iraqi people need to understand that in America, when we see Army recruitment suffering, and families organizing to protect their kids from recruiters, and the divorce rate for military officers skyrocketing, we take it very seriously. I know the Iraqi people already understand that our troops are skilled and brave -- now they need to understand that we must see legitimate progress that offers a real chance of American troops beginning to come home.

At the same time, if the administration really wants to get the Iraqis to bear the burden, they need to move beyond the hollow "stay as long as it takes no matter what" talk that provides an endless security blanket -- a disincentive for Iraqis to stand up for Iraq -- and instead talk forcefully about how to transfer of responsibility.

If the administration gets this plan right, and the Iraqis succeed in adopting a new constitution and holding elections as planned, trained Iraqi security forces should be ready to take on more responsibility at the critical moment when support for the insurgency is diminishing. That's the kind of careful, strategic planning we need to set the stage for American forces to begin to come home as Iraqi security forces assume more of the mission. But, again, this won't happen if the Iraqi people don't do their part. We must make the Iraqi government understand that the patience of America is finite, and that real progress must be achieved.

There's no question that deploying capable Iraqi security forces is imperative to success. But the administration would have us believe that Iraqi forces alone could end the insurgency. That's not enough. And I hope that the President strikes a different tone tonight, and commits to work simultaneously on all fronts -- security, economic and political.

The administration should know by now that overly optimistic predictions for rebuilding Iraq have been a drag on our mission. Reconstruction lags behind even in the Shiite south and the Kurdish north, where security is less of an issue. This sends the wrong message to those we ask to sacrifice for freedom. We need to speed up work in these areas to demonstrate that progress will be made in the rest of Iraq. If Iraqis, particularly Sunnis who fear being left out in the cold, see electricity flowing, jobs being created, infrastructure being built, and a government of their own choosing being formed, the lure of insurgency will diminish. The violence and risk to our troops will decrease. To get it right in Iraq, we must show all Iraqis that they're fighting not only for a future of freedom, but for a tangibly improved future for their children.

Getting it right also means understanding the neighborhood -- and getting those with an interest in Iraq, like the Saudis, to act now. Iraq is surrounded by Sunni neighbors with significant resources, yet complaints about being left out fall on deaf ears. They could do so much more to help, and we should encourage them. Even short-term improvements, such as providing electricity from their power grids, or supplying diesel fuel -- an offer made yet unfulfilled by the Saudis -- will go a long way. But we have to do our part and address their legitimate concerns if we want these nations to step up to the plate and help us secure Iraq's borders, bring Sunnis into the political process, or rebuild Iraq's economy and infrastructure. We must offer a coherent strategic plan for regional security. We must address their fears of an Iran-dominated crescent, and their concerns about our sporadic mediation between Israel and the Palestinians. This administration needs to show that it understands there has to be some give and take.

The administration could also give a significant boost to the rebuilding effort by recognizing the great untapped potential of private sector contributions. The administration, working with the Iraqi government, should organize a development conference for Iraqi businessmen and their regional counterparts who wish to invest in Iraq. Regional investment would not only strengthen Iraq's economy -- it would give neighboring governments a greater stake in Iraq's success, and another incentive to do more to help. And the administration might want to consider the effect on regional businessmen when they read headlines about Halliburton's extraordinary dominance of local contracts.

Much of what I've discussed today, from administration mistakes to the steps needed to move forward, deal with laying the groundwork for long-term success. But the reality is the elections are six months off. Iraq won't be rebuilt overnight, and it will take time to get the Iraqi troops ready. In the coming months, even with perfect planning, there will be violence, turmoil and hardship.

That's why tonight it's critical that President Bush makes clear tonight that there are actions we can take in the short-term to ease the burden on our troops. He needs to get this right, not only to save American lives, but to elevate the confidence of the American people. For this to happen, the President must reconsider some hastily brushed-aside options.

To date, the administration has been unwilling to entertain the idea of empowered militias, instead singularly focusing on a unified Iraqi security force. But Iraq, like Afghanistan, has numerous tribal, religious and ethnic militias such as the Kurdish peshmerga and the Shiite Badr Army. These forces are structured, and most importantly accepted by provincial populations and capable of providing protection while helping with reconstruction. In the interim, while a fully capable Iraqi security force is established, these forces could meet some of the critical security needs. If they can help do the job, why not let them? It's time for the administration to put aside its concerns and prod the Iraqi government to give the militias legitimacy. We can do this by integrating them into a National Guard-type force and using them to provide security in their own areas, where they are respected.

The administration also needs to get it right on border security if we want to ease the burden on our troops in the short term. The truth is border security has been absent from day one, which is a shame because this is exactly where our allies can help. As opposed to providing security in urban areas, border security is generally less risky for troops. The administration must work with the Iraqi government to reach out to the world and establish a multi-national force to secure Iraq's borers. Such a force, if sanctioned by the UN Security Council, could attract participation by Iraq's neighbors, and powerful nations with a vested interest, like India.

The administration has narrowed our options in Iraq, but there are still better choices available to us. There is still time to get it right in Iraq, and I hope for the sake of our troops that the President begins to get it right tonight. We are at a critical juncture in this conflict, both at home and abroad, and the last thing we need is the administration growing even more stubborn or defensive. Today, our nation needs honest leadership and a comprehensive strategy for success. It's time for the President to reach out and work across the aisle and across the globe to clean up this mess.

The President must seize this opportunity to move forward, as the next months are so critical to the future of Iraq and our security. If the administration fails to take the steps available to them -- and fails to hold the Iraqis accountable -- we will stumble along, our troops at greater risk, casualties rising, the patience of the American people wearing thin, and the specter of quagmire staring us in the face.

Every missed step, every measure untaken, every wise course not followed, carries an unbearable cost. The American people have a right to expect accountability from their leaders. We need to decrease the risk to our troops and strengthen our chances for success. Our troops deserve better than what they're getting. They deserve leadership equal to their sacrifice.

By Salon Staff

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