CHICAGO—Thank you, Ted. Ted Sorensen has been counselor to a president in some of our toughest moments, and he has helped define our national purpose at pivotal turning points. Let me also welcome all of the elected officials from Illinois who are with us. Let me give a special welcome to all of the organizers and speakers who joined me to rally against going to war in Iraq five years ago. And I want to thank DePaul University and DePaul's students for hosting this event.
We come together at a time of renewal for DePaul. A new academic year has begun. Professors are learning the names of new students, and students are reminded that you actually do have to attend class. That cold is beginning to creep into the Chicago air. The season is changing.
DePaul is now filled with students who have not spent a single day on campus without the reality of a war in Iraq. Four classes have matriculated and four classes have graduated since this war began. And we are reminded that America's sons and daughters in uniform, and their families, bear the heavy burden. The wife of one soldier from Illinois wrote to me and said that her husband "feels like he's stationed in Iraq and deploys home." That's a tragic statement. And it could be echoed by families across our country who have seen loved ones deployed to tour after tour of duty.
You are students. And the great responsibility of students is to question the world around you, to question things that don't add up. With Iraq, we must ask the question: How did we go so wrong?
There are those who offer up easy answers. They will assert that Iraq is George Bush's war, it's all his fault. Or that Iraq was botched by the arrogance and incompetence of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Or that we would have gotten Iraq right if we went in with more troops, or if we had a different proconsul instead of Paul Bremer, or if only there were a stronger Iraqi prime minister.
These are the easy answers. And like most easy answers, they are partially true. But they don't tell the whole truth, because they overlook a harder and more fundamental truth. The hard truth is that the war in Iraq is not about a catalog of many mistakes - it is about one big mistake. The war in Iraq should never have been fought.
Five years ago today, I was asked to speak at a rally against going to war in Iraq. The vote to authorize the war in Congress was less than 10 days away and I was a candidate for the United States Senate. Some friends of mine advised me to keep quiet. Going to war in Iraq, they pointed out, was popular. All the other major candidates were supporting the war at the time. If the war goes well, they said, you'll have thrown your political career away.
But I didn't see how Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat. I was convinced that a war would distract us from Afghanistan and the real threat from Al Qaeda. I worried that Iraq's history of sectarian rivalry could leave us bogged down in a bloody conflict. And I believed the war would fan the flames of extremism and lead to new terrorism. So I went to the rally. And I argued against a "rash war" - a "war based not on reason, but on politics" - "an occupation of undetermined length, with undetermined costs and undetermined consequences."
I was not alone. Though not a majority, millions of Americans opposed giving the president the authority to wage war in Iraq. Twenty-three senators, including the leader of the Senate Intelligence Committee, shared my concerns and resisted the march to war. For us, the war defied common sense. After all, the people who hit us on 9/11 were in Afghanistan, not Iraq.
But the conventional thinking in Washington has a way of buying into stories that make political sense even if they don't make practical sense. We were told that the only way to prevent Iraq from getting nuclear weapons was with military force. Some leading Democrats echoed the administration's erroneous line that there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. We were counseled by some of the most experienced voices in Washington that the only way for Democrats to look tough was to talk, act and vote like a Republican.
As Ted Sorensen's old boss President Kennedy once said, "The pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war - and frequently the words of the pursuer fall on deaf ears." In the fall of 2002, those deaf ears were in Washington. They belonged to a president who didn't tell the whole truth to the American people; who disdained diplomacy and bullied allies; and who squandered our unity and the support of the world after 9/11.
But it doesn't end there. Because the American people weren't just failed by a president - they were failed by much of Washington. By a media that too often reported spin instead of facts. By a foreign policy elite that largely boarded the bandwagon for war. And most of all by the majority of a Congress - a co-equal branch of government - that voted to give the president the open-ended authority to wage war that he uses to this day. Let's be clear: Without that vote, there would be no war.
Some seek to rewrite history. They argue that they weren't really voting for war, they were voting for inspectors or for diplomacy. But the Congress, the administration, the media and the American people all understood what we were debating in the fall of 2002. This was a vote about whether or not to go to war. That's the truth as we all understood it then, and as we need to understand it now. And we need to ask those who voted for the war: How can you give the president a blank check and then act surprised when he cashes it?
With all that we know about what's gone wrong in Iraq, even today's debate is divorced from reality. We've got a surge that is somehow declared a success even though it has failed to enable the political reconciliation that was its stated purpose. The fact that violence today is only as horrific as in 2006 is held up as progress. Washington politicians and pundits trip over each other to debate a newspaper advertisement while our troops fight and die in Iraq.
And the conventional thinking today is just as entrenched as it was in 2002. This is the conventional thinking that measures experience only by the years you've been in Washington, not by your time spent serving in the wider world. This is the conventional thinking that has turned against the war, but not against the habits that got us into the war in the first place - the outdated assumptions and the refusal to talk openly to the American people.
Well I'm not running for president to conform to Washington's conventional thinking - I'm running to challenge it. I'm not running to join the kind of Washington groupthink that led us to war in Iraq - I'm running to change our politics and our policy so we can leave the world a better place than our generation has found it.
So there is a choice that has emerged in this campaign, one that the American people need to understand. They should ask themselves: Who got the single most important foreign policy decision since the end of the Cold War right, and who got it wrong. This is not just a matter of debating the past. It's about who has the best judgment to make the critical decisions of the future. Because you might think that Washington would learn from Iraq. But we've seen in this campaign just how bent out of shape Washington gets when you challenge its assumptions.
When I said that as president I would lead direct diplomacy with our adversaries, I was called naïve and irresponsible. But how are we going to turn the page on the failed Bush-Cheney policy of not talking to our adversaries if we don't have a president who will lead that diplomacy?
When I said that we should take out high-level terrorists like Osama bin Laden if we have actionable intelligence about their whereabouts, I was lectured by legions of Iraq war supporters. They said we can't take out Bin Laden if the country he's hiding in won't. A few weeks later, the co-chairmen of the 9/11 Commission - Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton - agreed with my position. But few in Washington seemed to notice.