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William Rivers Pitt: Deadlines and Dissent

Deadlines and Dissent

By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Sunday 23 April 2006

The plaque on the side of the old brick building read, "This is Fanueil Hall, the cradle of liberty, built and given to the town of Boston by Peter Fanueil, 1742." Below this tribute, in larger letters, is a declaration: "Still used by a free people." It was a fitting statement, and a fitting spot, for the speech that was delivered within those hallowed walls on Saturday morning.

Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts chose the 35th anniversary of his historic testimony before the Senate regarding Vietnam to deliver an address titled "Patriotism and Dissent in America." The stage for his speech was set by way of a Boston Globe editorial published on Saturday morning which the Senator authored, titled "Patriotism is truth, today as in Vietnam."

"Thirty-five years later," wrote Kerry, "in another war gone off course, I see history 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. Again, we must refuse to sit quietly and watch our troops sacrificed for a policy that isn't working while Americans who dissent and ask tough questions are branded unpatriotic. Just as it was in 1971, it is again right to make clear that the best way to support the troops is to oppose a course that squanders their lives, dishonors their sacrifice, and disserves the American people and our principles."

Kerry's Saturday speech was preceded by moving remarks delivered by two speakers who have come to know intimately the realities of war. Captain Jonathan Powers spent fourteen months in Iraq serving with the 1st Armored Division, and upon his return founded a program that offers aid and assistance to Iraq's war children. Powers was followed by Judith Droz Keyes, whose husband Donald was a Swift Boat comrade of Kerry's in Vietnam. Donald Droz was killed in action in April 1969. Both Powers and Keyes forcefully defended the right of dissent in America, their voices becoming brittle with emotion as they described their respective experiences.

Kerry took the stage to roaring applause, unsurprising given the home-town audience, and proceeded to undo the conventional wisdom about his stiff, overly-formal speaking style. His delivery was pointed and passionate, unburdened by any seeming unease. After describing his experience before the Senate 35 years ago, he got right to the point.

In recent weeks," said Kerry, "a number of retired high-ranking military leaders, several of whom played key combat or planning roles in Afghanistan and Iraq, have come forward publicly to call for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. And across the administration, from the president on down, we've heard these calls dismissed or even attacked as acts of disloyalty, or as threats to civilian control of the armed forces. We have even heard accusations that this dissent gives aid and comfort to the enemy. That is cheap and it is shameful. And once again we have seen personal attacks on the character of those who speak out. How dare those who never wore the uniform in battle attack those who wore it all their lives - and who, retired or not, did not resign their citizenship in order to serve their country."

In delivering the meat of his message, Kerry continued, "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. As in Vietnam, we went into Iraq ostensibly to fight a larger global war under the misperception that the particular theater was just a sideshow, but we soon learned that the particular aspects of the place where we fought mattered more than anything else. And as in Vietnam, we have stayed and fought and died even though it is time for us to go. We are now in the third war in Iraq in as many years. The first was against Saddam Hussein and his supposed weapons of mass destruction. The second was against terrorists whom, the administration said, it was better to fight over there than here. Now we find our troops in the middle of an escalating civil war."

It was at this point that Kerry aligned himself with the crowd of Democratic Congresspeople who have demanded an exit from Iraq - Murtha, Conyers, Kucinich, Lee, and Woolsey to name a few - by calling for a withdrawal of American forces from that nation. "Our call to action is clear," he said. "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 just pushed aside Prime Minister Jaafari and brought forward a more acceptable candidate. And it will demand deadline toughness to reign in Shiite militias Sunnis say are committing horrific acts of torture every day in Baghdad. So we must set another deadline to extricate our troops and get Iraq up on its own two feet."

"Iraqi politicians should be told that they have until May 15 to deal with these intransigent issues," continued Kerry, "and at last put together an effective unity government or we will immediately withdraw our military. If Iraqis aren't willing to build a unity government in the five months since the election, they're probably not willing to build one at all. The civil war will only get worse, and we will have no choice anyway but to leave. If Iraq's leaders succeed in putting together a government, then we must agree on another deadline: a schedule for withdrawing American combat forces by year's end. Doing so will actually 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."

The speech delivered on Saturday by Senator Kerry was as important for its timing as it was for its content. Kerry is by far and away not the first Democratic politician to demand a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq; indeed, he has with this speech joined a long and important line of officeholders who have worked for more than a year to apply pressure on the Bush administration regarding this issue. He is, however, the highest-profile Democrat to do so.

As for the timing, it can be argued that Kerry chose the perfect moment to speak as he did. Every poll on the planet has Bush's popularity scraping historic lows, the chief millstone around his neck being his handling of Iraq. A number of the falsehoods that were used to trick the American people into war - the uranium from Niger claims, the biological weapons labs claims, the attacks upon whistleblowers - have been widely exposed in the last month. Previous attempts by Democratic officeholders to push the issue of withdrawal have withered on the vine, but given Kerry's high visibility and the timing of his remarks, a breakthrough on this discussion may have finally been achieved.

All of this, of course, remains to be seen, and Kerry's ability to motivate the base after the 2004 election remains suspect. Many within the Democratic grassroots are leery of anything having to do with this particular Senator. Resentment lingers over his "Yes" vote on the Iraq War Resolution, and much of the base still simmers over his decision to concede the 2004 election even as reports of widespread irregularities and fraud flooded out of Ohio. If he does choose to run for president again in 2008, he will find a good portion of the Democratic activist base eyeing him with suspicion.

Senator Kerry said, in an interview conducted after his speech on Saturday, that he has learned from the mistakes of his 2004 campaign. The jury will be out on this for some time to come, but it is possible that we are witnessing the actions of a different man than the one who campaigned so cautiously and accepted defeat so rapidly. At a minimum, Kerry has bolstered the drive towards an accounting on Iraq, and has pushed the widening demand for a withdrawal of US forces, for the time being, to the forefront of discussion. This, in and of itself, is worthy of note.

The following interview was conducted via telephone on Saturday evening.

PITT: Are there other Senators who will sign on or have signed on to your May 15th deadline you have put forward?

KERRY: I think we have a few, but I haven't gotten the latest word from the staff down in Washington. I don't know yet what the final number is going to be. We've been out on the Easter break for the last two weeks, so my colleagues have been sort of moving around.

One of the problems is that I proposed the May 15th date about three or four weeks ago, so there would be a six-week period of time where the ultimatum could be given. The president hasn't publicly, and as far as we know, hasn't privately given them an ultimatum. So some colleagues will say, oh God, it's only two weeks from now, how do we do that?

The point is not the date, so much as it is giving them the ultimatum of about four weeks or five weeks, and tell them they've got to do this or else. That's really the key.

PITT: How do you respond to those who say a US withdrawal from Iraq under any circumstances will cause that nation to collapse into chaos?

KERRY: There is no military resolution, anyway, so they have to stand up for themselves. You're in a civil war. The fact is that 242,000 members of the security forces have been trained, according to the administration. If 242,000 have been trained, and the basis for this policy is that we will stand down as soon as they stand up, their target goal for the full stand-up was 270,000. So we're only 30,000 away from where they supposedly said was our final security goal, and we haven't been standing down at all.

I'm not suggesting that, if they form the government, we're out of there overnight. We're out of there over the course of a year. A year is enough time for them to stand up and take control. Moreover, I've said we will maintain an "over-the-horizon" capability, precisely to avoid having al Qaeda and chaos to take over.

I think it's a red-herring argument, it's a phony argument, it doesn't recognize the realities of what they said their own policy is.

PITT: 60 Minutes is going to report Sunday night that the CIA informed both George W. Bush and Dick Cheney that Iraq was not in possession of weapons of mass destruction a full six months before the invasion took place, and that both Bush and Cheney dismissed their analysis because the decision for regime change had already been made. What is your response to this revelation?

KERRY: If it is true, it confirms more and more of what we've heard from the British memos, from the Downing Street memo, from different statements by people in the administration and out, that they had made up their mind to go to war, and that they misled the Congress and the American people.

PITT: How do you see the odds of the Democrats retaking one or both chambers of Congress?

KERRY: I think we have a shot. I can't predict. I know that if the real issues are on the table, and I hope they will be and that's what we'll be fighting for, I think there's a terrific chance. Most of my focus is going into that. I've helped over 140 different candidates around the country in 33 states. I'm working very hard on '06, because I believe '06 is the real battle.

PITT: You have said that no decision on a 2008 presidential run will be forthcoming soon, and that you are looking hard at the possibility. My question, therefore, is this: if you do decide to run again, what if anything will you do differently in this campaign?

KERRY: Let me just say that I learned a lot of lessons, and we made some mistakes, which I completely take responsibility for. I learned what we have to do, and if I decide to run, I'm going to do it, and I will know how to win.

But I'm not going to get into all of that at this point in time. I'll go into those things if and when the time comes. The bottom line is that we came within 60,000 votes, and I think I know how to cure the issues that were not properly addressed in the course of the campaign.


William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.

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