John Edwards photo

Remarks in Wilmington, North Carolina

August 30, 2004

Thank you, General Clark, for that kind introduction. It is an honor to have you with us today. Your service to our country illustrates what is great about America: leadership, strength, honor, and a deep conviction that our country must stand as a beacon of hope, opportunity and freedom.

On most days, a simple ceremony takes place here in Wilmington. It takes place in front of City Hall in the morning. A worker walks out to the flagpole with Old Glory clutched in his hands. He takes the clips and attaches the flag and starts raising it. He secures it in place, steps back and looks up.

We all look up to that flag. It is our symbol of freedom and democracy—our hope for mankind. The stars and stripes are what we smile at during the National Anthem at a ball game. They are what we salute and pledge allegiance to. And they are what we slip over the coffin of one of our fallen.

When we see that flag, we know that we are home—that the values and beliefs we cherish are close at hand. That's why we put it on the moon. That's why when sadness grips this nation, we lower it to half-staff. And that's why three dust-covered firefighters raised it after that dark day in September.

In the middle of that devastation, they reached for a greater hope. They sent the enduring symbol of freedom toward the heavens. In the days and weeks after, flags lined front lawns and hung from front porches. It was a great gesture of American unity—one copied around the world as countries thousands of miles away raised our flag too. None of us will ever forget where we were on September 11th.

We share the same terrible images: the Towers falling, the Pentagon in flames, and the smoldering field in Pennsylvania. And we share the profound sadness for the nearly three thousand lives lost. It is the day that redefined America's security challenges.

The last time we collided with an enemy that wanted to destroy our way of life was at the end of World War II. Stalin and his army began to lower the Iron Curtain across Eastern Europe. President Truman knew that if he did not work with our allies to rebuild Europe and Japan, the communist curtain would destroy freedom every chance it had.

President Truman saw this gathering threat. He did not retreat from the world. He did not withdraw our troops from Europe and Asia. And he did not think for one moment that the United States alone could beat back communism.

He knew that victory would be ours if we had a strong military, strong allies and the respect of the world. And so he launched the Marshall Plan and helped create NATO. Imagine if President Truman had responded to the Iron Curtain with a Wall of Indifference? Imagine if he had turned his back on allies that had stood by our side? Imagine if he had refused to lead the effort to rebuild our former enemies, Germany and Japan?

Where would we be today?

President Truman said, "No one nation alone can bring peace. Together, nations can build a strong defense against aggression, and combine the energy of free men everywhere in building a better future for all."

For fifty years, Presidents from Truman to Eisenhower to Reagan to Clinton have followed this path.

For fifty years, Presidents have built strong alliances and strengthened our respect in the world.

For fifty years, Presidents have made our ideals and values the hope of millions across the globe.

For fifty years, our presidents have led America down this strong and peaceful path.

Until now. Until this president. We have seen what this Administration's approach does to our standing in the world. It isolates us. It costs us respect from our allies. It means we must face these new challenges alone. And their failed leadership means that they cannot deal with the new threats we face.

It doesn't have to be this way.

After months of saying he'd done everything right on Iraq and foreign policy, the President acknowledged just the other day that he miscalculated the way in which he waged the war in Iraq. He believes that he may have won the war too quickly and that was a miscalculation.

I want to talk to you about the other ways in which this President has "miscalculated."

The Bush Administration miscalculated by rushing to war without a plan for the peace.

The Bush Administration miscalculated by deciding to go it alone without strong allies.

The Bush Administration miscalculated when they waited three years after September 11th to start to reform our intelligence.

The Bush Administration miscalculated by turning its back on Afghanistan.

The Bush Administration miscalculated by failing to listen to the 9/11 Commission.

The Bush Administration miscalculated by standing on the sidelines while North Korea and Iran advanced their nuclear programs.

But I don't need to tell you or the American people about all that's gone wrong in the last four years. You know.

You see the results in your hometowns: co-workers who have been in Iraq for more than a year. Brothers and sisters you haven't seen in months. And your wife or husband who's served honorably but still struggles to rebuild their lives.

What you need to hear from me and John Kerry is how we plan to make things right and how we can make a difference. That's why it's time for a fresh start—to restore this tradition of "building a better future for all" and ensuring that America remains that bright beacon of hope.

I know that some Americans question whether or not there are differences between us and our opponents.

Whether it is winning the war on terror; strengthening and leading strong alliances; or finishing the job in Afghanistan and Iraq. After months of listening to the Republicans base their campaign on their singular ability to win the war on terror, the president now says we can't win the war on terrorism. This is no time to declare defeat -- it won't be easy and it won't be quick, but we have a comprehensive long-term plan to make America safer. And that's a difference.

There are big differences and today I will tell you what they are. We know that the war against al Qaeda and like-minded groups is a life or death struggle. We know that they are plotting and planning to attack this country and our interests abroad. We know that their ideology is to destroy us. And they will stop at nothing to murder Americans and divide this world.

Our mission is clear. That is why John Kerry and I will always have one unmistakable message for these terrorists. You cannot run. You cannot hide. We will destroy you—make no mistake, we will destroy you. But we need to ask ourselves in a clear-headed way:

Are we denying our enemies what they seek?

Are we doing all that we can to defeat them?

Are we doing all that we can to win this war of ideas?

John Kerry and I are willing to ask and answer these questions. We will not be stuck in the past. We will not be blinded by ideology. We will ensure that we have the best ideas to make America stronger at home and respected in the world. This is what we will do. This is what they won't do. And that is a difference.

Since September 11th, here's what we know. We know that al Qaeda's leadership has been hit, but new cells and new organizations form every day. We know that we have not finished the job in Afghanistan. And we know that after we took down Saddam Hussein, we kept the world at arm's length. And at the same time, militants and rebels used their arms and car bombs to kill our soldiers and prevent democracy from taking hold.

When it comes to our place in the world, we have been led right down a hole. We have to get out of it. It will take time and hard work. And the only way out of this hole is with a new president and a new approach. To win the war on terror, we need three things: a strong offense, a strong defense, and strong alliances. And that's what I am going to talk about today.

We will go on the offensive to defeat the terrorists before they get to us. We will strengthen our defenses by preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and by providing stronger homeland security. And we will build strong alliances. This is what we will do. This is what they haven't done. And that is a difference.

John Kerry and I will never cede our security and military strength to any nation. Sometimes our national defense will require that we go it alone. But building and leading strong alliances is a sign of our strength. And it will make us safer.

And in the end, the greatest tribute to those who died on September 11th -- and those who fought and fell in the defense of freedom—is to build a safer world where terrorism falls and democracy rises. So that our flag and the flag of free nations always wave liberty home.

First let me talk about what we can do to create a strong offense in this war. It requires more than aggressive rhetoric; it requires new leadership and new ideas. And we must start by finishing the job we started in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Afghanistan is in many ways a forgotten front in the war on terror. It has come a long way since I visited there two years ago and met with President Karzai. But this Administration didn't finish what they started.

The security situation is dangerous. Twice as many soldiers have died in combat so far this year—compared to all of last year, and hundreds more have been injured. Humanitarian groups are pulling out. Osama bin Laden remains at large. The Taliban and al Qaeda have regrouped and warlords control much of the country outside of Kabul.

President Karzai has repeatedly asked for more help, and yet this administration has failed to deliver. That is why John Kerry and I are proposing a plan to address the country's two greatest challenges. First, the need for stability and security. And second, the need to tackle the drug trade that puts Afghanistan's future at risk.

President Karzai has asked for more support with his country's security. And we will give that to him. We will work with NATO to accelerate the expansion of its forces outside Kabul. NATO's recent pledge to provide troops to improve security for October's presidential elections is a good first step. But we will ask more of NATO to keep those troops there beyond the election period.

In the last two years, Afghanistan has resumed its status as the world's leading producer of opium and heroin. Its poppy production has increased dramatically. It now produces 75 percent of the world's opium. To stop the exploding drug trade, we will double counter-narcotics assistance. We will work with the Karzai government to put the druglords out of business—so that the Taliban can never return to power.

Our strategy will involve close cooperation with Afghanistan's neighbors. And we will also work with our European allies. The vast majority of heroin ends up on their streets and they have a real interest in seeing this stop. Specifically, we will work with our British allies to create a fully capable Afghan counter-narcotics force. That force will have a clear mandate: to track down and get rid of the druglords.

Today, nearly 20,000 of our men and women stand in harm's way in Afghanistan. We've seen before what forgetting Afghanistan brings. John Kerry and I will not forget our brave soldiers or the Afghan people who want their new country to thrive. We have a plan that will help liberty prevail. This is what we will do. This is what they have failed to do. And that is a difference.

In Iraq, we face a situation complicated by this administration's failure to plan. The Secretary of Defense's own commission to investigate the horrific abuses at Abu Ghraib prison could not have made it more clear: there was "a failure to plan for a major insurgency."

It also made clear that responsibility for the prison abuses rest at the top of the administration. The climate for these terrible abuses was set because this administration sent our troops into battle without a plan to win the peace. The President called it a "miscalculation."

You can call it anything you want. But the truth is, it was a failure of leadership. Because of this administration's failures, Iraq is a mess today. And it probably will be the day we take office. It didn't have to be this way. But it is. And we need new leadership to fix it. So let me tell you what John Kerry and I will do in Iraq.

First, with a new president, we will earn the respect of our allies. We will ask more from them to ease the burdens on our troops so they can come home. For more than a year, John Kerry and I have called for NATO to be involved with Iraq. We will ask NATO to accelerate the training of Iraq's security forces -- and bring in 4,000 NATO troops to ensure that Iraq's elections run smoothly. We will also ask that they play a much greater role in the training of Iraqi security forces.

Second, we also will work with Iraq's neighbors so they know in clear and unmistakable terms, we are going to do everything we can to make this succeed. Iraq's neighbors must respect its borders and not interfere in Iraq's democratic transition. We must ensure that countries like Syria stop harboring former criminals from Saddam Hussein's regime. And we must ensure that Iran does not support uprisings in places like Najaf. John and I will not let these or other countries stand in the way of a stable and democratic Iraq.

And third, we will ask our allies to do more. We can ask them to do more to help Iraq's economy. We can ask them to forgive Iraq's enormous debt and participate in the reconstruction. I think it's time that our allies and not just Halliburton rebuild Iraq.

This is what we will do. This is what they can't do and that is a difference.

With a strong military ready to fight and win this war, our intelligence must be just as reliable and as strong. This is an issue I have worked on for a long time – and we can and we must do better. And the most important challenge is to build an intelligence community that's credible, coordinated and has the capacity to deal with the new threats we face.

Here's what we'll do:

First, we're going to put one person in charge—a new National Intelligence Director. This director will have real authority to manage the intelligence budget and hire the best minds we have.

Second, we'll structure our intelligence community to meet the threats of today—not the Cold War. It is not in our best interest to hold on to old systems and bureaucracies that worked well for the Cold War, but do not deal with the threats we face today.

And third, we'll strengthen our human intelligence – starting by doubling the number of intelligence operatives we have tracking down terrorists overseas. In the past few years, there have been numerous high-level investigations and plans to reform intelligence – the Scowcroft Commission, the Gilmore Commission, the Congressional Joint Inquiry on which I served, and the 9-11 Commission.

John Kerry and I have been talking about fundamental intelligence reforms for a long time. Now, even senior Republican members of Congress are calling for bold reform. But this administration's last minute actions fall short. And we have to ask, why did it take three years? The answer is simple: they have been stuck in the past.

John Kerry and I know we need strong intelligence so that we can find the terrorists and crush them. We have a real plan for intelligence reform and we will put it in place. This is what we will do to keep the American people safe. This is what they haven't done. And that is a difference.

But to win this war, we must also go on the offensive to win the war of ideas throughout the Muslim and Arab world. We need to reach out to ordinary people from Egypt to Morocco to Indonesia. We need to convince them once again that America is a good and decent country -- and that our vision is right and our enemy's vision is wrong.

General John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, said that the fight we are in is "a battle of ideas as much as it is a military battle." Just as poverty and despair isolate and drain hope from our own people in our cities and towns, it does the same thing for every person who feels like they don't have a chance.

One of our greatest strengths as a nation is the idea that all people are created equal. That every person shall be free. And that every person has the opportunity to use their God-given talents. The world needs to remember this and believe in it again.

It is part of America's history and destiny to stand up for freedom. But we cannot promote freedom without the support of free countries around the world. We cannot promote freedom when we don't have the trust and respect of ordinary people struggling to be free.

In the days and weeks after September 11th, other countries raised our flag. They have since taken it down. John and I will restore our respect in the world so that flag can fly high again.

This is what we will do. This is what they can't do. And that is a difference.

The 9-11 Commission points the way. It says that "support for the United States has plummeted," especially in the Muslim world. John Kerry and I will devote more resources for education so young people know that they have a choice. That they can choose hope and freedom and join us in rejecting hatred and fear.

If given the chance, these young men and women could do what so many others in the past have done. They could pull down the great books from the shelves in libraries. They could exchange ideas with others from different countries. And they could begin to move their country out of that fog of hate and despair. This is the power of freedom.

If given the chance, it stirs the soul and makes all people long for that fundamental human right to be free. We will make it a priority to push back against the Madrassas that teach hate. And pull up those mighty forces of freedom.

Winning the peace in Afghanistan and Iraq; strengthening our military and reforming our intelligence; standing up to promote democracy and freedom -- that is the kind of strong offense we need to win this war. But a strong offense alone is not enough. We also need a stronger defense.

We can build an aggressive defense by making sure that our homeland defense is the best it can be. And by finally working with the world to meet our greatest threat—terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction. We know that our enemies want these weapons, especially a nuclear bomb.

And we know that most of these weapons and bomb making materials are not secure, especially in Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union. Terrorists could get these weapons. We cannot wait any longer to secure them. At this administration's pace, it will take at least 13 years to secure this dangerous material and weapons.

That is too long. The threat is urgent. It is not their priority. And for John Kerry and I it will be.

That is why we have a plan to secure that dangerous material by the end of our first term. We will close the loopholes in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. We will achieve a global ban on the production of material for nuclear weapons, and we will establish global standards to safeguard that material.

We also will increase efforts to keep the know-how to build nuclear weapons away from terrorists. We can strengthen existing plans that ensure nuclear scientists are employed for peaceful purposes. And we can provide safety and security to those scientists who are working on weapons programs in rogue nations.

That is why we will create a "Nuclear Whistleblower Initiative." We will send a message to those nuclear scientists: If you want to come clean and expose an illegal weapons program, then we will help you and we will protect you. And finally, we will bring the world together to end the nuclear weapons programs in states like North Korea and Iran.

These countries were labeled as part of an "axis of evil." Yet, two-and-a-half years later, the administration has stood on the sidelines while they advanced their nuclear programs. In fact, during the past three years, the threats from North Korea and Iran's nuclear programs have only gotten worse. This is a failure of American diplomacy.

A president must do more than shrug his shoulders when confronted with these dangers. With John Kerry in the White House, we will have a policy that is both strong and smart. We will lead our allies more effectively, using every tool in our arsenal.

And preventing nuclear terrorism will be our highest priority. This is what we will do. This is what they can't do. And that is a difference.

To have the best defenses in place, we must also strengthen our homeland security. This week a lot of attention will be on New York City. It is one of the most guarded cities in our country. The police officers and fire fighters and EMTs have met their responsibility to defend this nation.

They worked at Ground Zero until the last load was carted away. And they work overtime to protect our bridges and our subways. We all know that on September 11th, New York's finest and bravest brought hope to the world. And they deserve a president who understands that homeland security is not the burden of our cities—but the responsibility of the entire country.

When one city or one building is attacked, we are all attacked. But three years after September 11th, as the Republicans gather for their convention, New York City still has too many unmet needs. The city's emergency management system still lacks the proper radios. Police officers and firefighters do not have the proper equipment they need for a biological or chemical attack. Cargo coming into our ports isn't checked.

And if there is a bioterror attack, we don't have adequate drugs or vaccines, and our hospitals don't have the capacity to handle mass casualties. What is happening in New York is happening in cities around the country. John Kerry and I will make sure that our homeland security needs for our cities and towns will be met. This is what we will do. This is what they haven't done. And that is a difference.

But as President Truman said, "we cannot secure the peace and win this war alone." We must win this war the way we did in World War I, World War II, and the Cold War—with our allies by our side. And finally, I want to talk about why leading and building strong alliances matter.

General Clark knows about the importance of strong alliances. It was through his strong leadership that America and its NATO allies won the war in Kosovo. And today, as the 9-11 Commission recommended, America must create a "comprehensive coalition" against terrorism. We have to ask ourselves—why is the 9-11 Commission calling on us to do this? Because this administration has failed to do it.

Rather than accepting NATO's historic pledge of support after 9-11, we turned our back on our oldest friends. Rather than bringing other countries into Iraq's reconstruction, we are doing it alone. Rather than strengthening our alliances in Asia and Europe, we are walking away from them by withdrawing our troops.

This is not some academic or Washington thing. This is about more than getting other people to like us. We need strong alliances to defeat the terrorists before they come after us. We need other nations to help us strike terrorists before they strike us. We need other nations to gather intelligence and disrupt cells. We need other nations to stop the money flow to these terrorists groups. We need other nations to win.

The truth is, when we act as if our friends don't matter, the easier it is for some of our friends to avoid the hard choices. John Kerry and I will demand more from America's leadership – and in turn, we will expect more from our allies. This is what we will do. This is what they won't do. And that is a difference.

Every American knows a simple truth: your family is safer when America is looked up to in the world, not just feared. It is a sign of our nations' strength whether or not the world stands by us. We will ensure that the image of America—the image all of us love.

America this great shining light, this beacon of freedom, democracy, and human rights that the world looks up to—that that beacon is always lit. There was a time when a president didn't just speak to Americans—he spoke to the world. People in towns thousands of miles away would gather to listen and watch what the leader of the free world had to say.

Think about those men and women in Nazi-occupied Europe who would huddle around short-wave radios to listen to President Roosevelt. Think about the people who cheered in Berlin when President Kennedy stood with them and said, "Like you, I am a Berliner." Think of the millions of people imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain who silently cheered the day President Reagan declared, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." Think of millions of people who admired George Bush's father as he helped unify Germany and lead a broad coalition to victory in the Gulf War. Think about the people in Africa and Asia who crowded the streets to hear Bill Clinton when he traveled the world to reach out to them.

Even if these ordinary men and women didn't always agree with our policies, they looked up to and respected our leaders. They looked to our president and thought, there is a leader we trust. There is a leader who inspires us. There is a leader we will follow even if it means danger and sacrifice for us. It matters who stands at the helm of our nation.

It matters who leads us in our battle against terrorism. And it matters whether or not the world still looks to America and its flag as a beacon of hope. The hard truth is that the world does not look up to our president this way any more. They did for a moment after September 11th, but that moment was lost. With John Kerry, that moment can be found again.

This is what a Kerry-Edwards Administration can restore. This is what they can never restore and this is the difference. This won't be easy. It will not happen overnight. It will take hard work, sacrifice, and courage. It will take new and sustained leadership. One thing you can take to the bank: John Kerry and I will do all we can to make America safer and more respected in the world.

But this is not the challenge of just one president or one administration. This is the challenge of a generation. And we will meet this challenge. We will rise up and into a better day.

So that decades from now someone—your granddaughter or your son—can walk toward a flagpole just after dawn. They can take Old Glory and send it toward the heavens. And we'll look up at our flag. We'll salute it and know that liberty and freedom will always wave us home.

Thank you and God Bless You.

John Edwards, Remarks in Wilmington, North Carolina Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/284859

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