I go any further, I want to thank the American Legion and all our
veterans service organizations for supporting our troops wherever they
are stationed and caring for them when they come home.
It is truly hero’s work and I know I speak for all the members of the United States Congress when I say ‘thank you.’
I also want to congratulate Commander Hill and the hundreds of bikers who participated in yet another successful Legacy Run. All told, you raised more than $360,000 for the families of servicemembers who have fallen in the line in the years following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Those memories don’t fade and these colors don’t run. So we honor the sacrifices of our 9/11 heroes --- today… tomorrow…always.
Thank you for the work you are doing to help improve veterans’ access to the quality health care they deserve.
I was proud to work with the Legion last year to stop a severely misguided plan to bill veterans’ health insurance companies for combat injuries. Insurance companies don’t send men and women into combat, our Nation does – and our Nation should take responsibility for that momentous decision.
And I was proud to stand with the Legion this year to expose flaws in the new health care law that could have harmed veterans. With the Legion’s help, we successfully protected veterans’ health care benefits from new mandates and costly regulations.
JOBS AND THE ECONOMY
As important as our government’s commitment to provide quality health care for our veterans may be, just as important is a commitment to the dignity and respect that comes from holding a job.
Today, as thousands of our warriors come home seeking to provide for their families and realize the American Dream they have volunteered to defend, awaiting them is an economy that affords neither opportunities nor jobs. Veterans’ unemployment is now at 11 percent.
That is why I have called on my colleagues in the Congress and the president to join me in supporting a series of immediate actions to end the ongoing economic uncertainty and help more Americans find an honest day’s work.
‘Stimulus’ spending sprees, permanent bailouts, federal mandates and government takeovers have failed this nation and have failed our veterans.
It’s time for a fresh start so that every man and woman who has donned the uniform of our nation knows that when they leave the service, the opportunity for a good job in the private sector awaits them.
It is an honor to share the stage today with Secretary Robert Gates and I join him in thanking our brave men and women who have served and are currently serving in Iraq.
This day belongs to our troops, whose courage and sacrifices have made the transition to a new mission in Iraq possible. It is with profound gratitude that we reflect on all that our servicemembers and their families have done – and continue to do – during a time of peril. We also salute the work of their commanders, General David Petraeus and General Ray Odierno.
At this moment, I can’t help but think back to a time when the situation in Iraq was grim and the future seemed bleak.
When General Petraeus embarked on the surge strategy, it was widely viewed as our last chance to save Iraq from spiraling into an irreversible descent toward chaos. The consequences of failure then, as now, were severe.
Some leaders who opposed, criticized, and fought tooth-and-nail to stop the surge strategy now proudly claim credit for the results.
* One leader in the U.S. House of Representatives declared the surge a failure before it was even implemented.
* One leader in the United States Senate said, and I quote – ‘this war is lost’ – while additional forces were being mobilized.
* One lawmaker rejected the idea that the surge would reduce violence in Iraq, saying – and again I’m quoting – ‘in fact, I think it will do the reverse.’
These are lawmakers who supported – and accepted support from – an anti-war organization that ran a full page ad in The New York Times smearing a four star general, a commander of men and women in harm’s way as “General Betray Us.”
Today we mark not the defeat those voices anticipated – but progress.
And I want to thank President Obama for setting aside his past political rhetoric and recognizing the importance of the surge and the diplomatic agreement signed by President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki.
At this hour, 50,000 U.S. troops are still in Iraq. For those troops, and for their families, the war will not be over until they come home. And though the mission has changed, their work is no less critical.
For there is no stronger bulwark against the menace posed by the Iranian regime or other extremist forces in the region than a democratic Iraq. There is no greater inspiration to moderate governments and reformers in the region than a successful Iraq. And there is no better argument against those who preach intolerance and hatred than a free, stable, thriving Iraq.
Of course, true success in Iraq will be determined not by the words politicians speak today, but by their actions in the months and years ahead.
The hard truth is that Iraq will continue to remain a target for those who hope to destroy freedom and democracy.
Over the past several months, we’ve often heard about ending the war in Iraq, but not much about winning the war in Iraq. If we honor what our men and women fought for, we cannot turn our backs now on what they have achieved.
When we support our troops, we support them all the way – there is no such thing as supporting our troops, but not their mission.
Victory in Iraq was the only option in 2007 – and it is the only option now.
The American Legion understands that, and the American people understand that. That is why we are here talking about our troops returning home in success instead of gradual surrender.
Of course, too many of our own have returned home from Iraq to be laid to rest. Their sacrifices have not been in vain, and I know Legionnaires give their all to ensure that the families of the fallen are held up in our hearts and deeds.
Staff Sergeant Daniel Clay is one of our fallen heroes. His wife, Lisa Bell Clay, once worked in my congressional office. Sergeant Clay was one of our United States Marines killed in Fallujah in 2006.
This Marine understood his duty to God and country. We as elected leaders must understand ours as well.
COMMITMENTS TO OUR TROOPS
Our troops in harm’s way should never have to doubt Congress’s commitment to supporting their mission.
When asked to provide our troops in harm’s way with the resources they need, we should do so without delay. That means no more troop funding bills held up by unrelated, extraneous domestic spending and pork barrel projects.
We need a Congress that understands when we send our sons and daughters to risk all in defense of our security – victory is the only option – and we will do whatever it takes to provide them with the necessary support so they can return home swiftly and successfully.
No voice – no matter how strong or committed – can substitute for the voice of the Commander-in-Chief.
That is why the president must take the time to articulate in a coherent, consistent matter to their families and fellow citizens the cause, purpose, and goal of their mission.
These imperatives should not be communicated in the manner of ‘checking a box.’ These missions should not be bunched together among a laundry list of political challenges.
Afghanistan is not just one of ‘two wars’ – it is central to the global struggle against extremism and intolerance.
The border Afghanistan shares with Pakistan is a virtual command and control center where al Qaeda leaders plan and plot their attacks against the United States and its allies.
Afghanistan must be resistant to the forces of extremism hell bent on returning to power and it must be resistant to becoming a potential safe haven for terrorist organizations.
I support our counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, but the president must do more to emphasize his commitment to ensuring its success rather than focusing on arbitrary deadlines for withdrawal. And he must also place a greater emphasis on ensuring successful implementation of both the military and civilian components of his strategy.
Using campaign promises as a yardstick to measure success in Iraq and Afghanistan runs the risk of triggering artificial victory laps and premature withdrawal dates unconnected to conditions on the ground.
After years of hard fighting – which has come at a high price – we cannot afford to underestimate the impact our domestic debates and political hedging have on decisions made by friend and foe alike.
If we are successful in accomplishing our goals in Afghanistan, it will be because of the endurance, discipline, and patience of our troops. I know the American Legion joins me in expressing gratitude to our men and women serving in Afghanistan.
CONFRONTING AND DEFEATING THE TERRORIST THREAT
The United States certainly cannot afford to think short-term when our enemies have proven time and again they are in it for the long haul.
This is a war that began well before the tragic events of 9/11 – it is a war the American people did not seek, and did not start. This is an enemy that first tried to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993. This is an enemy that then took its desire to kill Americans abroad – to Riyadh in 1995, to Khobar Towers in 1996, to East Africa in 1998, and to the U.S.S. Cole off the coast of Yemen in 2000.
This is an enemy that seeks to impose a pernicious legal code and wills the death and destruction of anyone who opposes them.
Before 9/11, the United States treated terrorism like a law enforcement issue. We handled each incident as separate and unique, content with investigating after the fact rather than focusing on preventing the attack. We characterized the perpetrators as criminals to be tried and contained, rather than terrorists to be deterred and defeated.
We see signs of a return to this pre-9/11 mentality in proposals to house terrorists on American soil just to fulfill a political promise.
The American people were told last year that keeping open the Guantanamo Bay Prison, which houses the worst of the worst, served as a rallying cry for our enemies.
We were told that closing the detention facilities and importing the remaining terrorists into the United States would diminish the threat.
And then, starting with a plot to blow up the Manhattan subway system last September, we witnessed four terrorist incidents on U.S. soil in an eight-month period – including the Fort Hood shooting….the attempted Christmas Day bombing….and the failed Times Square bombing.
Each of these attacks represented new strands of terrorism. Each of these terrorists received varying degrees of support, but all had ties to international terrorist organizations and their radical extremist platforms.
Now more than ever, the American people deserve every assurance that their government has the right legal authorities and the right mindset in place to prevent future attacks.
Just days ago, the Justice Department announced it would not be pursuing charges against the terrorist who allegedly coordinated the bombing of the USS Cole.
This is no garden variety terrorist. This is a terrorist who has the blood of 17 American sailors on his hands. This is a terrorist who worked hand in hand with one of the 9/11 hijackers.
The commander of the Cole, who has fought for justice alongside the families of the fallen sailors, has said the Obama Administration is blatantly playing politics with this issue.
When it comes to holding those who kill innocent Americans responsible for their heinous acts, politics should be the last thing on our mind.
Over the course of the last 20 months, it is clear our country’s overarching detention policy has been lost. We do not know the parameters for when, how, and under what circumstances we will capture, solicit information from, and detain illegal enemy combatants.
We are a nation at war. A patchwork of political promises does not represent a coherent strategy to confront and defeat the terrorist threat.
We need a Congress that will hold our government accountable for an overarching capture, detention and interrogation policy. And we need a Congress that will use every tool at its disposal to keep terrorists off U.S. soil.
Stopping at nothing to confront and defeat the terrorist threat – that is how we can best protect the American people and set an example for the world.
Our missions in Iraq and Afghanistan are also critical to maintaining America’s centuries-old role as a selfless beacon of freedom and hope.
For America did not become ‘the last, best hope of man’ by accident or by force. It was a choice – a choice first made by revolutionaries who faced down what was then the most powerful empire in the world.
During his second Inaugural Address, President Lincoln talked about how the Union did not seek to make war, but chose to accept war in freedom’s defense rather than letting the nation perish.
And at the height of our test of wills against Soviet Communism, President Reagan reaffirmed America’s commitment to a genuine peace, but made certain the Evil Empire knew that “we will never compromise our principles and our standards, and we will never give away our freedom.”
When reports of President Reagan’s words reached the Siberian gulags, the Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky tapped them out to his fellow prisoners in code.
Years later, when finally he was free and his oppressors had been tossed to the ash heap of history, Sharansky visited the Oval Office. And he urged President Reagan to keep giving his speeches, so that others who aspired to liberty could hear his call to arms.
President Reagan’s rhetoric rang out to another dissident, an electrician by the name of Lech Walesa, who shaped the Solidarity movement that caused one of the first dents in the Iron Curtain.
When President Reagan died – 15 years after the Berlin Wall came down – Walesa wrote in America’s newspapers that “we in Poland took him so personally. Why? Because we owe him our liberty.”
Margaret Thatcher said of President Reagan: he took words and sent them out to fight for us.
What words are being sent out now from our government to fight for the cause of freedom and democracy? What words does a prisoner in Cuba’s gulag or a freedom fighter in Iran hear?
Or those who are struggling to hold onto newly formed democracies in places such as Georgia or the democracies in our own hemisphere threatened by Venezuela?
And if the prisoners of Belarus or North Korea hear nothing – if it is silence that echoes in their cells rather than the firm words of America’s support – if they hear nothing, will they one day be able to sit in the Oval Office or write in the pages of a free media to thank an American president?
Never forget that America remains the only nation on the face of the Earth founded on an idea, not an identity – an idea that free people can govern themselves, and that government’s powers are endowed only through the consent of the governed.
An idea that the rights of all will be respected and protected, and that no one’s opportunity to pursue happiness will be limited.
If America will not stand with freedom-loving peoples and those who seek to be free from evil – whether in the guise of petty tyranny, radical Islam, or any Marxist regime – then who on this Earth will?
Ideas matter. Our government must reawaken itself to the task of providing a more robust defense of freedom and liberty.
Because when America does not articulate these enduring values in a forceful, consistent manner – when we do not send these words out to fight for us – we cause turmoil and confusion.
Our enemies take this as a sign of weakness or a dimming of our belief in ourselves.
Our allies see cause to be uncertain and unsettled about what role the United States will play in the future.
When we do not speak out, our deeds are left to speak for themselves.
Every time we make a concession to countries acting against our national interests…every time we ignore or snub the commitments, shared values, and sacrifices of our allies…we pay a price.
IRAN AND ISRAEL
As we gather here, Iran is working to develop a nuclear weapons program. Contrary to the wishful thinking of some, the Iranian regime is capable of doing a cost-benefit analysis of pursuing these weapons in the face of international isolation.
Iran is more than prepared to sacrifice the well-being of its people for the chance to fundamentally change the balance of power in the region. It is the true source of instability in the region, and we must not naively assume a nuclear-armed Iran would be containable.
The destinies of Iran and Israel are often inter-linked, with good reason. Israel is an island of freedom surrounded by a sea of oppression and hate, surrounded by enemies who seek its destruction.
Israel is on the front lines of the ideological and violent clash we are confronting. The attacks against it – whether through acts of violence, international criticism, or manipulation of laws of war – are often the vanguard of what our country will face.
America has stood by Israel since Harry Truman sat in the Oval Office. Our commitment to this long-standing friendship should be no less strong today.
Where I come from, you stick by your friends, you stick by people who share your values. You do not send a message of strength to your enemies by shunning your friends and allies.
The foreign policy of the United States should not be built on a platform of apologies, corrections, and reset buttons. We will not confront and defeat the terrorist threat by blurring America’s exceptionalism and backing out on America’s commitments.
Our nation has paid a tremendously high cost these last nine years at war, and our military personnel and their families have paid the highest price.
We have had heart-wrenching debates regarding how best to address these challenges. These debates have left scar tissue – between parties and ideologies – but the challenges we face know neither.
We have serious decisions to make regarding our path forward, and these decisions will be made in an environment in which we borrow 41 cents of every dollar we spend. This means we must focus on working together to identify our national security priorities and ensure our continued military and economic superiority.
Just as America’s founding was a choice, maintaining its greatness is a choice as well.
Today, we choose to do what needs to be done – to do what we know to be right – and to never accept the next best thing for our families, for our country, and for freedom.
These are articles of faith worth fighting to the last for. You have done it. Your comrades have died for it. Our troops risk all for it.
All you’ve asked for, and all they ask for, is the full support of their elected leaders, and so long as I have anything to say about it – I give you my word – they will have it.
High atop the United States Capitol Dome stands the Statue of Freedom, completed in 1863 during some of the darkest and most divisive days in the history of our country.
What I love most about the Statue of Freedom is that she faces to the east … because the sun never sets on freedom’s face.
The sun never sets on an idea America pioneered…an idea America has championed…an idea generations of Americans have fought and died for, incurring a debt this nation can never fully repay.
Thank you. God bless you, God bless your families, and God bless America.