page top

America's Credibility: The Underpinning Of An Effective Foreign Policy

Add to bookbag Add to Bookbag | Bookbag (0)

Item Description


America's Credibility: The Underpinning Of An Effective Foreign Policy


Leahy, Patrick J.

Published: April 12, 2007,  University of Vermont, Bailey/Howe Library, Special Collections


Address of Senator Patrick Leahy School For International Training Brattleboro, Vermont April 15, 2004

Date of Source Document

April 15, 2004


Time period: April 15, 2004

Format: speech

Other Formats

Rights: http://

Permanent Link:

Preferred citation

America's Credibility: The Underpinning Of An Effective Foreign Policy, , Special Collections, University of Vermont Library, (accessed February 25, 2018)


America's Credibility: The Underpinning Of An Effective Foreign Policy

Address of Senator Patrick Leahy
School For International Training
Brattleboro, Vermont
April 15, 2004

America's Credibility: The Underpinning Of An Effective Foreign Policy

I first heard of World Learning nearly three decades ago when it was still The Experiment in International Living. Even by that time, long before The Experiment changed its name, it had already proven its point about the rewards of experiencing foreign cultures.

It was somehow fitting that such an innovative, visionary place, dedicated to promoting deeper understanding among cultures, societies and nations, should be based not in Washington, not in New York, London or Rome – although come to think of it Rome would be nice – but in a cow pasture on a hill in Vermont.

Vermonters have always viewed our small state as closely linked to the rest of the world, and sometimes we tend to take World Learning a bit for granted. But when you think about it, it is rather remarkable that you are here, and that in time you will scatter again to the four corners of the Earth.

Charlie MacCormack, who for years ran the Experiment and then World Learning, is a good friend. He put World Learning on a solid footing, and Jim Cramer has done an extraordinary job of leading this institution in a time of great political and financial challenges.

I want to pay tribute to Jim, for his six years of outstanding service, and to thank him for believing so strongly in World Learning’s mission, and in the School for International Training, and for setting such a fine example for whoever his successor may be.

Here in Vermont, with all the peaceful beauty around us, it is possible to feel sheltered from many of the world’s problems. I can stand at the front door of our home in Middlesex and look out over 20 miles of woods and hills and not see signs of another human being. And yet, thanks to CNN, the Internet, and places like SIT, we are also constantly reminded of how profoundly the world’s problems do affect us.

In a world as complicated and dangerous as this, there are many topics I could discuss today –

  • the spread of AIDS, which is unquestionably the worst public health catastrophe in human history;
  • hunger and poverty on a massive scale;
  • religious and ethnic intolerance;
  • terrorism;
  • war crimes and other human rights atrocities;
  • the destruction of forests, watersheds and agricultural land;
  • Iraq, Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict;

the list goes on and on.

Many of you have witnessed these problems in your own countries, and they are why you are studying here. Perhaps during the question and answer period we can touch further on some of them.

But what I want to talk about, by focusing on Iraq, is America’s credibility and reputation in the world. I can think of nothing more important in light of what is happening in Iraq today – where our soldiers and aid workers are facing dangers far worse than any we were told to expect, and as we seek to use our unmatched power to tackle the other global threats I have mentioned

Two and a half years ago, shortly after 2,986 people of some 60 nationalities died in the attacks on the World Trade Center, on the Pentagon, and in a lonely field in Pennsylvania, I spoke on the floor of the Senate. I supported the use of military force against al Qaeda and the Taliban, and I want to quote some excerpts of what I said then.

I said: "There can be no excuse, no justification whatsoever, for attacks against unarmed civilians – whether it is the suicide bomber or the suicide hijacker, or a government that commits atrocities against its own citizens.

"The terrorists want us to overreact. They want to draw us into a 'holy war,’ and they will use these images against us, alienating others in the Muslim world whose support we need to combat this threat, and among whom there are many who already resent our involvement in the Middle East.

"To reduce the threat of terrorism, of whatever form, we must work to resolve the issues that foster deep and lasting hatred the terrorists feed on, that produces their funding, and their recruits.

"Almost 60 percent of the world’s people live in Asia, and that number is growing. Seventy percent of the world’s people are non-White, and 70 percent are non-Christian. About 5 percent own more than half the world’s wealth. Half the world’s people suffer from malnutrition. Seventy percent are illiterate." Unquote.

I discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Quoting again: "I do not believe that a solution to the Middle East conflict will eliminate the problem of international terrorism. But I am convinced that, as difficult a problem as it is, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be solved if we are to make tangible progress against terrorism."

And finally, I said: "We must reaffirm the principles that make this country a beacon of hope around the world . . .We must continue to show the world what sets us apart from the terrorists. Defense of human rights is one of these cherished principles."

I spoke at a time when the American people were grieving and struggling with how to respond. There were outpourings of sympathy from around the world, including from moderate Muslims who rejected al Qaeda’s radical, hateful message.

Despite the Bush Administration’s shift toward unilateralism which was already under way and had angered many of our friends and allies, 9/11 brought expressions of good will toward our country unlike any we had experienced since the end of the Second World War. And that good will continued as our forces fought al Qaeda and eliminated the Taliban’s hold on Afghanistan.

Today, however, Afghanistan is far from most people’s minds. The world’s attention is on Iraq, where some 135,000 American soldiers are serving, including hundreds of Vermonters. More than 600 Americans have lost their lives, including several Vermonters. Many more have suffered life-lasting disabilities.

A year has passed since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad, and with the benefit of hindsight we can judge our actions.

Regrettably, the sympathy and good will that I spoke of, and which offered such promise, has long since dissipated. In fact, it was squandered. I suspect many of you have witnessed this in your own countries. What was conceived as a campaign against terrorism, focused on al Qaeda, is increasingly perceived by many of the world’s 1 billion, 200 million Muslims as a war of aggression by the United States and our predominantly Christian allies, against Islam itself.

This, I submit, is a disaster. We cannot make lasting progress against terrorism, which remains as great a threat if not more so today than before 9/11, without the support of Muslims everywhere. Yet it is easy to see why this has happened.

First, the rationale for going to war collapsed, fueling deep suspicions about our sincerity and our motives. Our intelligence was wrong and the assertions of supremely confident, misinformed U.S. officials were doubly wrong.

Then there are the words of several of America’s best known Christian evangelists, who are suspected by many to speak for President Bush’s and Vice President Cheney’s strongest supporters:

The Reverend Franklin Graham, who gave the invocation at George W. Bush's inauguration, said on NBC News: "We’re not attacking Islam but Islam has attacked us. The God of Islam is not the same God. He’s not the Son of God of the Christian or Judeo-Christian faith. It’s a different God, and I believe [Islam] is a very evil and wicked religion."

On CBS’s "60 Minutes," the Reverend Jerry Falwell called the Prophet Muhammad "a terrorist."

The Reverend Pat Robertson said on Christian Broadcasting Network News that, "If I say something that Islam is, you know, an erroneous religion, then I get criticized by the Anti-Defamation League. You just want to say: 'When are you going to open your eyes and see who your enemy is.’"

At the same time, radical Muslim leaders have fueled the flames of hatred, calling Americans "infidels," ordering their annihilation, and praising the suicide bombers.

Today, according to a recent poll, a majority of people in Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey – Muslim allies of the United States that receive hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid – believe we are conducting a campaign against terror to, quote, "control Middle East oil and dominate the world."

A majority of the people surveyed in these countries remain angry about U.S. policies, and today they are supportive of Osama bin Laden. A clear majority said that suicide bombings against Americans and other Westerners in Iraq are justified.

Even our closest allies have deep misgivings. Half of Britons said the Iraq war has hurt efforts to combat terrorism. Over half favor a more disengaged relationship between the United States and Western Europe.

This change of heart, in little more than a year, may represent the most dramatic, negative shift in world opinion toward the United States since Vietnam.

I have no doubt that most Iraqis are relieved to be rid of Saddam Hussein and the horrors of his regime. Most Iraqis abhor violence and want to rebuild their country. Nor should there be any doubt about our concern for the safety of American soldiers and civilians whose motives are honorable and who are bravely risking their lives.

But after the collapse of the justification for going to war, the anti-Islamic statements, and the heavy-handed missteps resulting in the deaths of hundreds or thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians, we are now widely seen as the occupiers, forcing our will on the Iraqi people – Sunni and Shiite – and at war with Islam itself.

And yet each time another roadside bomb or suicide attack claims the lives of Americans and hundreds or thousands of Iraqis celebrate, our leaders insist that it is the work of a few extremists who simply "don’t get it," and who we will soon put out of business.

It is true that the radical Shiites reject our vision for Iraq’s future, just as we reject theirs. In their eyes, they are fighting a holy war to rid us from their country, and it looks increasingly to Muslims from Indonesia to North Africa that that is what this is. Perhaps it is time that we asked ourselves whether it is also we who do not get it.

Most of you are too young to remember the Vietnam War. Certainly, there are key differences between Iraq and Vietnam. But, while it sounds elementary, one of the most revealing things that former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara has said about Vietnam is that our biggest mistake was not tying the military’s hands, as some have argued, but that we did not understand the Vietnamese people.

Not only was the rationale for the war against North Vietnam – the Tonkin Gulf incident – shown years later to have been a pretext based on faulty intelligence; even more importantly, we failed to grasp how our enemy saw the war.

The North Vietnamese, who were fighting a civil war, saw us as simply the latest colonial power, allied with a corrupt, illegitimate South Vietnamese regime, out to subjugate them. We, on the other hand, believed that we were there to stop the spread of world communism. And the people of South Vietnam turned out, not surprisingly, to have far more in common with the nationalistic northerners than with us.

The consequences of the tragic mistake of Tonkin Gulf, and our failure to understand the psychology and resolve of the Vietnamese people, was 58,000 dead Americans and some 3 million dead Vietnamese.

Again, Vietnam and Iraq are worlds and eras apart, but to the extent that there are similarities, I think none is more relevant to Iraq than that which McNamara identified as being at the heart of our failed policy in Vietnam.

President Bush says our military forces are in Iraq to promote freedom and democracy. I agree with that. But after U.S. soldiers were ordered to padlock the doors of a Shiite newspaper because of its false and vitriolic incitement of violence against Americans, the violence sharply escalated, supported by tens of thousands of Iraqis chanting anti-American slogans.

What we thought would help to defuse their anger, had the opposite effect. In fact, it helped to unite Islamic factions that have been enemies for generations. It was the latest of many examples of how little we understand the Iraqi people, and how our actions have turned against us those whose support we desperately need.

We speak of civil liberties and democratic values, while we detain Muslims in military prisons without charging them with any crime, and while we deny them access to attorneys or their families.

President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld praise Saudi Arabia, a monarchy that has done more to promote Islamic extremism and discourage the emergence of moderate Muslim leaders than any nation. And we continue to give aid to corrupt Arab and Central Asian dictators who rule by force.

We have the strongest military history has ever known. But today we are more isolated than at any time I can remember. Is our $400 billion military, and our $30 billion intelligence budget, more powerful than the faith of millions, when that faith is manipulated and exploited and turned against us?

It is tragic that 30 years after Vietnam, the same arrogance, the same distortions of the truth, the same simplistic notions of "good versus evil," the same rudimentary understanding of the people, their culture, their faith and traditions, and the same rosy assertions that things are getting better, has gotten us into what is increasingly looking like a deadly quagmire that may not only bog us down for years, but create more terrorists.

Many people, including some in the U.S. government, warned of this possibility, but they were ridiculed and dismissed as unpatriotic nay sayers. Some suffered professionally for daring to dissent.

Last week we heard, yet again, from the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Secretary of State. Despite the increasing number of American casualties and their own intelligence analysts who say that anti-Americanism is spreading, they each expressed unwavering confidence in the President’s policy. It is as if they want the public to believe that this is what they had expected all along – they just forgot to tell us.

And yet, they can no longer credibly argue that the detour into Iraq has not diverted our focus from al Queda and our efforts against terrorism.

President Bush, just two nights ago, made clear that he plans to, quote, "stay the course," without explaining why he continues to believe this course will succeed.

"Staying the course" is not a viable strategy, at least not to me. Simply using more force, or sending more troops, will not solve the problem.

Whether a peaceful, democratic Iraq is a realistic or achievable goal is difficult to say. It is what we and most Iraqis yearn for, despite the forces of history in the Persian Gulf that are weighted against it.

Yet, despite their and our best efforts, Iraq may ultimately become two countries, or three, or a theocracy modeled on Iran.

That would represent a colossal failure of U.S. policy, but it is a growing possibility if we persist in an approach that is perceived by the Iraqi people and by the wider Muslim world as being imposed from outside.

Our experience in Iraq has reinforced lessons we should have learned long ago:

  • – Credibility is paramount. Military power has its place, but it is no substitute for government officials who mislead in order to justify going to war, and who profess to stand for principles they often contradict by their own actions. A breach of trust at the highest levels of government is never justified, it is difficult to repair, and it affects everything else we do.
  • – Understanding other cultures. This is SIT’s mission, and it needs to also be the U.S. Government’s mission. Today, for the second time in my lifetime, Americans are dying in a war in a foreign country whose people and traditions neither the American public, nor their leaders, understand. I look forward to the day when the President of the United States, preferably an SIT graduate, is someone who has lived and worked in a developing country and has experienced first hand the world as others know it, and as others see us.

We must mount an effective campaign against terrorism, as we must against AIDS, poverty, and other global threats. The United States is the world’s wealthiest, most powerful nation, and these problems will not be solved without our leadership.

But just as we must recognize that other cultures and societies view these threats differently, our ability to win their support in building the alliances that are necessary to combat them effectively depends on living up to the standards we set for ourselves and for others.

We cannot credibly insist that other nations respect human rights, when we fail to act to stop genocide in Rwanda or Sudan, or when we violate or denigrate international law when it is politically expedient.

We cannot credibly appeal to other nations to stop using landmines, when we, with a military budget that dwarfs theirs, continue to insist on the right to use them ourselves.

We cannot credibly ask poor nations to do more to conserve energy, when we fail to make concerted efforts to develop renewable energy resources, and we refuse to join international treaties to reduce the use of fossil fuels.

We cannot credibly ask other nations to do more to combat poverty, when we, with by far the world’s largest economy, spend only one-half of 1 percent of our budget on this type of foreign aid.

And we cannot credibly ask others to send more of their troops into harm’s way in Iraq. Not when we arrogantly dismissed their warnings about rushing into war without adequate justification, and not until we offer them a meaningful say in developing a strategy that can unite the Iraqi people and ultimately get their troops, and our troops, home safely.

I believe we must do what we can to make it possible for the Iraqi people to choose an alternative to Saddam’s loyalists and the extremists who answer to Iran’s Ayatollah, who would take the country backward. But our task is immeasurably more difficult because the premise that was used to justify our intervention is no longer credible, our reputation has been badly damaged, and we are virtually alone.

We need a broader, multilateral strategy that has the support of a majority of the American people, the Iraqi people, and the international community, including as many Arab and other Muslim nations as possible.

That strategy needs to be unambiguously aimed at restoring sovereignty to the Iraqi people through a process of self determination, at the earliest possible date.

With so many mistakes already, changing course would not be easy. But the longer we wait, the more likely it is that these mistakes will compound themselves. The stakes are far too high to delay any longer.

Add a comment:


* Optional

User Comments