Tuesday, March 23, 2004

The Speech He Should Have Made

The president gave his big speech to representatives of world leaders the other, to mark the first anniversary of the Iraq War. It wasn't bad. But here's some of what I wish he had said:

We in this administration sometimes said Iraq was a threat to the world because it had weapons of mass destruction. At the time, we thought we were right about that. Looking back, we presented a few stories as evidence that turned out to be tall tales. Looking back, we spoke about some matters as certain that were in fact speculative. That was wrong, because it now comes up to cast a shadow on what was a just and proper, if painful, course of action. Good people who took risks to stand by us during this crisis now feel misled by this. And those who oppose us in everything take malicious pleasure in magnifying a handful of wrong statements into a supposed policy of perfidy.

The fact is, nobody before the spring of 2003 knew Saddam had no powerful destructive weapons -- not even Saddam himself knew this, apparently. Ask Hans Blix. Ask the writers against the war who, before it began, predicted that a coalition attack would provoke a rain of hellish artillery on our troops, on Israel, on Saudi Arabia. The fact is, Saddam shut out the U.N. inspectors, and that left us to guess at what he was doing, and we guessed on the side of the safety of the rest of the world. Given the track record of this man, in the same situation again, we would make the same choice.

Another fact that has been overlooked, somehow, is that Saddam was in material and serious violation of the agreement with the United Nations which dealt with his weapons programs. Since we in this administration were trying to work through the U.N., and to convince the U.N. to stand up for itself, we leaned particularly hard on the point of weapons programs in the run-up to the war, rather than the other justifications for our actions.

It is highly unusual that we had to go that route with the U.N. The U.N. has an eloquent document affirming human rights around the world, but it has no inclination or desire to enforce a single word of it. And that was the other, better reason we had to go to war against Saddam: The lives of 25 million Iraqis.

Let's get this out in the open right now. American administrations and policies from the 1970s to 1991 helped keep Saddam in power and helped him expand his power. He used weapons we sold him to do horrible things to his neighbors and his own people. My father was involved in that. People who are important in this administration were involved in that in key ways. Democrats in Congress were involved in that. To the Iraqi people, we apologize. We are doing our best right now, in your country, to right the wrong we have done to you.

In the Cold War, America could make difficult ethical decisions in terms of the global conflict between freedom and communism. At times, America supported manifestly un-free regimes if they took our side. There was a certain logic to that in the Cold War, but that war is over. And as with all pacts with the Devil, there is a price to be paid.

A new war has begun. It began, for us, on Sept. 11, 2001. After that day, we learned the danger of leaving a nation without cleaning up our mess before we go. We left Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and we paid a terrible price for that. We are much more aware, now, of what monsters can grow from the dragons teeth America has sown.

And this is the third reason we went to war against Saddam. After the terror attacks in New York and Washington and over Pennsylvania, many people in the world told America, "don't just go out and kill terrorists; strike at the root cause of terrorism."

My friends, that is exactly what we are attempting to do in Iraq. World terror right now disproportionately comes from Muslim lands and the Middle East. Those are some of the poorest, most repressed, stagnant places on this earth. Their demographics leave them with a bulging population of young men, who feel little hope and much bitterness. For too long, leading voices in that world have blamed all its problems on the West. And we have allowed this to happen, and we have not challenged the distortions and the lies.

Already, since the fall of Saddam, we are doing so. They said Americans would go to Iraq to steal its oil. Instead, we are there building its schools and filling them with textbooks. They said we would go there to build an empire. Instead, coalition forces are organizing neighborhood citizens' councils and teaching the nuts and bolts of democracy. With the guidance of American and coalition leaders, a broad range of Iraqis have drafted a constitution that is a model for the Middle East.

And so forth. Of course, I'm not sure these are things he could honestly say. It's a strange position I am in and many others I know of are in: supporting people you don't entirely trust in doing something you don't entirely trust them in doing.