Obama at the VFW National Convention
Orlando, FL | August 19, 2008
Thank you, Commander Lisicki, for your leadership. Let me alsoacknowledge the leadership of Virginia Carman, the president of the VFWladies auxiliary, as well as my friend Jim Webb who will be speakinghere later today. Finally, let me thank all of the members of theVeterans of Foreign Wars of the United States of America for inviting mehback to this convention. It is a privilege to be among so many who havegiven so much for our country.
I stand before you today at a defining moment in our history. We are inthe midst of two wars. The terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 are stillat large. Russia has invaded the sovereign nation of Georgia. Iran ispursuing nuclear weapons. The next Commander-in-Chief is going to haveto exercise the best possible judgment in getting us through thesedifficult times.
Yesterday, Senator McCain came before you. He is a man who has servedthis nation honorably, and he correctly stated that one of the chiefcriteria for the American people in this election is going to be who canexercise the best judgment as Commander in Chief. But instead of justoffering policy answers, he turned to a typical laundry list ofpolitical attacks. He said that I have changed my position on Iraq whenI have not. He said that I am for a path of "retreat and failure." Andhe declared, "Behind all of these claims and positions by Senator Obamalies the ambition to be president" - suggesting, as he has so manytimes, that I put personal ambition before my country.
That is John McCain's prerogative. He can run that kind of campaign, and- frankly - that's how political campaigns have been run in recentyears. But I believe the American people are better than that. I believethat this defining moment demands something more of us.
If we think that we can secure our country by just talking tough withoutacting tough and smart, then we will misunderstand this moment and missits opportunities. If we think that we can use the same partisanplaybook where we just challenge our opponent's patriotism to win anelection, then the American people will lose. The times are too seriousfor this kind of politics. The calamity left behind by the last eightyears is too great. So let me begin by offering my judgment about whatwe've done, where we are, and where we need to go.
Six years ago, I stood up at a time when it was politically difficult tooppose going to war in Iraq, and argued that our first priority had tobe finishing the fight against Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda inAfghanistan. Senator McCain was already turning his sights to Iraq justdays after 9/11, and he became a leading supporter of an invasion andoccupation of a country that had absolutely nothing to do with the 9/11attacks, and that - as despicable as Saddam Hussein was - posed noimminent threat to the American people. Two of the biggest beneficiariesof that decision were al Qaeda's leadership, which no longer faced thepressure of America's focused attention; and Iran, which has advancedits nuclear program, continued its support for terror, and increased itsinfluence in Iraq and the region.
In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, I warned that war would fan theflames of extremism in the Middle East, create new centers of terrorism,and tie us down in a costly and open-ended occupation. Senator McCainpredicted that we'd be greeted as liberators, and that the Iraqis wouldbear the cost of rebuilding through their bountiful oil revenues. Forthe good of our country, I wish he had been right, and I had been wrong.But that's not what history shows.
Senator McCain now argues that despite these costly strategic errors,his judgment has been vindicated due to the results of the surge. Let meonce again praise General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker - they areoutstanding Americans. In Iraq, gains have been made in lowering thelevel of violence thanks to the outstanding efforts of our military, theincreasing capability of Iraq's Security Forces, the ceasefire of Shiitemilitias, and the decision taken by Sunni tribes to take the fight to alQaeda. Those are the facts, and all Americans welcome them.
But understand what the essential argument was about. Before the surge,I argued that the long-term solution in Iraq is political - the Iraqigovernment must reconcile its differences and take responsibility forits future. That holds true today. We have lost over a thousand Americanlives and spent hundreds of billions of dollars since the surge began,but Iraq's leaders still haven't made hard compromises or substantialinvestments in rebuilding their country. Our military is badlyoverstretched - a fact that has surely been noted in capitals around theworld. And while we pay a heavy price in Iraq - and Americans pay recordprices at the pump - Iraq's government is sitting on a $79 billiondollar budget surplus from windfall oil profits.
Let's be clear: our troops have completed every mission they've beengiven. They have created the space for political reconciliation. Now itmust be filled by an Iraqi government that reconciles its differencesand spends its oil profits to meet the needs of its people. Iraqiinaction threatens the progress we've made and creates an opening forIran and the "special groups" it supports. It's time to press the Iraqisto take responsibility for their future. The best way to do that is aresponsible redeployment of our combat brigades, carried out in closeconsultation with commanders on the ground. We can safely redeploy at apace that removes our combat brigades in 16 months. That would be wellinto 2010 - seven years after the war began. After this redeployment,we'll keep a residual force to target remnants of al Qaeda; to protectour service members and diplomats; and to train Iraq's Security Forcesif the Iraqis make political progress.
Iraq's democratically-elected Prime Minister has embraced thistimeframe. Now it's time to succeed in Iraq by turning Iraq over to itssovereign government. We should not keep sending our troops to fighttour after tour of duty while our military is overstretched. We shouldnot keep spending $10 billion a month in Iraq while Americans strugglein a sluggish economy. Ending the war will allow us to invest inAmerica, to strengthen our military, and to finish the fight against alQaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and the border region of Pakistan.
This is the central front in the war on terrorism. This is where theTaliban is gaining strength and launching new attacks, including onethat just took the life of ten French soldiers. This is where Osama binLaden and the same terrorists who killed nearly 3,000 Americans on ourown soil are hiding and plotting seven years after 9/11. This is a warthat we have to win. And as Commander-in-Chief, I will have no greaterpriority than taking out these terrorists who threaten America, andfinishing the job against the Taliban.
For years, I have called for more resources and more troops to finishthe fight in Afghanistan. With his overwhelming focus on Iraq, SenatorMcCain argued that we could just "muddle through" in Afghanistan, andonly came around to supporting my call for more troops last month. Now,we need a policy of "more for more" - more from America and our NATOallies, and more from the Afghan government. That's why I've called forat least two additional U.S. combat brigades and an additional $1billion in non-military assistance for Afghanistan, with a demand formore action from the Afghan government to take on corruption andcounternarcotics, and to improve the lives of the Afghan people.
We must also recognize that we cannot succeed in Afghanistan or secureAmerica as long as there is a terrorist safe-haven in northwestPakistan. A year ago, I said that we must take action against bin Ladenand his lieutenants if we have them in our sights and Pakistan cannot orwill not act. Senator McCain criticized me and claimed that I was for"bombing our ally." So for all of his talk about following Osama binLaden to the Gates of Hell, Senator McCain refused to join my call totake out bin Laden across the Afghan border. Instead, he spent yearsbacking a dictator in Pakistan who failed to serve the interests of hisown people.
I argued for years that we need to move from a "Musharraf policy" to a"Pakistan policy." We must move beyond an alliance built on mereconvenience or a relationship with one man. Now, with PresidentMusharraf's resignation, we have the opportunity to do just that. That'swhy I've cosponsored a bill to triple non-military aid to the Pakistanipeople, while ensuring that the military assistance we do provide isused to take the fight to the Taliban and al Qaeda in the tribal regionsof Pakistan.
Today, our attention is also on the Republic of Georgia, and SenatorMcCain and I both strongly support the people of Georgia and theAmericans delivering humanitarian aid. There is no possiblejustification for Russia's actions. Russian troops have yet to begin thewithdrawal required by the cease-fire signed by their president, and weare hearing reports of Russian atrocities: burning wheat fields, brutalkilling, and the destruction of Georgia's infrastructure and militaryassets.
This crisis underscores the need for engaged U.S. leadership in theworld. We failed to head off this conflict and lost leverage in ourability to contain it because our leaders have been distracted, ourresources overstretched, and our alliances frayed. American leadershipmeans getting engaged earlier to shape events so that we're not merelyresponding to them. That's why I'm committed to renewing our leadershipand rebuilding our alliances as President of the United States.
For months, I have called for active international engagement to resolvethe disputes over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. I made it crystal clearbefore, at the beginning of, and during this conflict that Georgia'sterritorial integrity must be respected, and that Georgia should beintegrated into transatlantic institutions. I have condemned Russianaggression, and today I reiterate my demand that Russia abide by thecease-fire. Russia must know that its actions will have consequences.They will imperil the Civil Nuclear Agreement, and Russia's standing inthe international community - including the NATO-Russia Council, andRussia's desire to participate in organizations like the WTO and theOECD. Finally, we must help Georgia rebuild what has been destroyed.That is why I'm proud to join my friend, Senator Joe Biden, in callingfor an additional $1 billion in reconstruction assistance for the peopleof Georgia.
These are the judgments I've made and the policies that we have todebate, because we do have differences in this election. But one of thethings that we have to change in this country is the idea that peoplecan't disagree without challenging each other's character andpatriotism. I have never suggested that Senator McCain picks hispositions on national security based on politics or personal ambition. Ihave not suggested it because I believe that he genuinely wants to serveAmerica's national interest. Now, it's time for him to acknowledge thatI want to do the same.
Let me be clear: I will let no one question my love of this country. Ilove America, so do you, and so does John McCain. When I look out atthis audience, I see people of different political views. You areDemocrats and Republicans and Independents. But you all served together,and fought together, and bled together under the same proud flag. Youdid not serve a Red America or a Blue America - you served the UnitedStates of America.
So let's have a serious debate, and let's debate our disagreements onthe merits of policy - not personal attacks. And no matter how heated itgets or what kind of campaign he chooses to run, I will honor SenatorMcCain's service, just like I honor the service of every veteran in thisroom, and every American who has worn the uniform of the United States.
One of those Americans was my grandfather, Stanley Dunham.
My father left when I was 2, so my grandfather was the man who helpedraise me. He grew up in El Dorado, Kansas - a town too small to warrantboldface on a road map. He worked on oil rigs and drifted from town totown during the Depression. Then he met my grandmother and enlistedafter Pearl Harbor. He would go on to march across Europe in Patton'sArmy, while my great uncle fought with the 89th Infantry Division toliberate Buchenwald, my grandmother worked on a bomber assembly line,and my mother was born at Fort Leavenworth. After my grandfather leftthe Army, he went to college on the GI Bill, bought his home with helpfrom the Federal Housing Authority, and he and my grandmother moved westin a restless pursuit of their dreams.
They were among the men and women of our Greatest Generation. They camefrom ordinary places, and went on to do extraordinary things. Theysurvived a Depression and faced down fascism. And when the guns fellsilent, America stood by them, because they had a government that didn'tjust ask them to win a war - it helped them to live their dreams inpeace, and to become the backbone of the largest middle class that theworld has ever known. In the five years after World War II, the GI Billhelped 15 million veterans get an education. Two million went tocollege. Millions more learned a trade in factories or on farms. Fourmillion veterans received help in buying a home, leading to the biggesthome construction boom in our history.
And these veterans didn't just receive a hand from Washington - they didtheir part to lift up America, just as they'd done their duty indefending it. They became teachers and doctors, cops and firefighterswho were the foundation of our communities. They became the innovatorsand small business owners who helped drive the American economy. Theybecame the scientists and engineers who helped us win the space raceagainst the Soviets. They won a Cold War, and left a legacy to theirchildren and grandchildren who reached new horizons of opportunity.
I am a part of that legacy. Without it, I would not be standing on thisstage today. And as President, I will do everything that I can to keepthe promise, to advance the American Dream for all our veterans, and toenlist them in the cause of building a stronger America.
Our young men and women in uniform have proven that they are the equalof the Greatest Generation on the battlefield. Now, we must ensurethat our brave troops serving abroad today become the backbone of ourmiddle class at home tomorrow. Those who fight to defend America abroadmust have the chance to live their dreams at home - through educationand their ability to make a good living; through affordable health care;and through a retirement that is dignified and secure. That is thepromise that we must keep with all who serve.
It starts with those who choose to remain in uniform, as well as theirfamilies. My wife Michelle has net with military families in NorthCarolina, Kentucky and Virginia over the last several months. Everytime, she passes on their stories - stories of lives filled withpatriotism and purpose, but also stories of spouses struggling to paythe bills, kids dealing with an absent parent, and the unique burden ofmultiple deployments. The message that Michelle has heard is what youall know and have lived: when a loved one is deployed, the whole familygoes to war.
The VFW has done an extraordinary job of standing by our militaryfamilies - helping out with everything from a phone card for a soldierwho is overseas, to an extra hand around the house. As President, I willstand with you. We need a Military Families Advisory Board to identifynew ways to ease the burden. We need more official support for thevolunteer networks that help military spouses get by. And we need tomake sure that military pay does not lag behind the private sector, sothat those who serve can raise their families and live the life they'veearned.
For those who return to civilian life, I will support their AmericanDream in this 21st century just as we supported generations of veteransin the 20th. That starts with education. Everyone who serves thiscountry should have the same opportunity that my grandfather had underthe GI Bill. That's why, unlike my opponent, I was a strong and earlysupporter of Jim Webb's GI Bill for the 21st Century - a bill thatSenator McCain called too generous. At a time when the skyrocketing costof tuition is pricing thousands of Americans out of a college education,this bill provides every veteran with a real chance to afford aworld-class college education. And that's what I'll continue to stand upfor as President.
We must also stand up for affordable health care for every singleveteran. That's why I've pledged to build a 21st century VA. We need tocut through the red tape - every service-member should get electroniccopies of medical and service records upon discharge. We need to closeshortfalls - it's time to fully fund VA health care, and to add more VetCenters. We need to get rid of means-testing - every veteran should beallowed into the VA system. My opponent takes a different view. He wantsto ration care so the VA only serves combat injuries, while everyoneelse gets an insurance card. While the VA needs some real reform tobetter serve those who have worn the uniform, privatization is just notthe answer. We cannot risk our veterans' health care by turning the VAinto just another health insurer. We need to make sure the VA is strongenough to treat every veteran who depends on it. That's what I'll do asPresident.
And we must expand and enhance our ability to identify and treat PTSDand Traumatic Brain Injury at all levels: from enlistment, todeployment, to civilian life. No one should suffer in silence, or slipthrough the cracks in the system. That's why I've passed measures toincrease screening for these unseen wounds, and helped lead a bipartisaneffort to stop the unfair practice of kicking out troops who suffer fromthem. This is something I've fought for in the Senate, and it'ssomething that I'll make a priority as President.
Economic security for our veterans also depends on revamping anoverburdened benefits system. I congratulate the VFW for what you'vedone to help veterans navigate a broken VBA bureaucracy. Now it's timefor the government to do a better job. We need more workers, and a 21stcentury electronic system that is fully linked up to military recordsand the VA's health network. It's time to ensure that those who'veserved get the benefits that they've earned.
Just as we give veterans the support they deserve, we must also engagethem and all Americans in a new cause: renewing America. I am runningfor President because I believe that there is no challenge too great forthe American people to meet if they are called upon to come together. InAmerica, each of us is free to seek our dreams, but we must also serve acommon purpose, a higher purpose. No one embodies that commitment like aveteran.
Just think of the skills that our troops have developed through theirservice. They have not simply waged war in Afghanistan and Iraq - theyhave rebuilt infrastructure, supported new agriculture, trained policeforces, and developed health care systems. For those leaving militaryservice, it's time to apply those skills to our great nationalchallenges here at home.
That means expanding programs like Troops-to-Teachers that put veteransat the front of the classroom. That means tapping the talent ofengineers who've served as we make a substantial investment to rebuildour infrastructure and create millions of new jobs. That meansdramatically expanding national service programs to give Americans ofall ages, skills and stations the chance to give back to theircommunities and their country. I'll also enlist veterans in forging anew American energy economy. That's why I've proposed a Green Veteransinitiative to give our veterans the training they need to succeed in theGreen Jobs of the future - so that they put themselves on a pathway to asuccessful career, while ensuring that our national security is neverheld hostage to hostile nations.
This is how we can help our veterans live their dreams while helping ourcountry meet the challenges of the 21st century. And this is what wehave learned from so many generations of veterans, including those ofyou here today - that your contribution to the American story does notend when the uniform comes off. We need those who serve in our militaryto live their dreams - and to continue serving the cause of America -when the guns fall silent. That's what the VFW stands for, and if I havethe honor of being your President, that's what my Administration willwork for every single day. Because I believe that we have a sacred trustwith those who serve in our military. That trust is simple: America willbe there for you just as you have been there for America. It's a trustthat begins at enlistment, and it never ends.
I thought of that trust last week when I visited the Pearl HarborMemorial. I saw where the bombs fell on the USS Arizona, and where a warbegan that would reshape the world order while reshaping the lives ofall who served in it - from our great generals and admirals, to theenlisted men like my grandfather. Then I visited his grave at thePunchbowl, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.
I still remember the day that we laid my grandfather to rest. In acemetery lined with the graves of Americans who have sacrificed for ourcountry, we heard the solemn notes of Taps and the crack of guns firedin salute; we watched as a folded flag was handed to my grandmother andmy grandfather was laid to rest. It was a nation's final act of serviceand gratitude to Stanley Dunham - an America that stood by mygrandfather when he took off the uniform, and never left his side.
This is what we owe our troops and our veterans. Because in every noteof Taps and in every folded flag, we hear and see an unwavering beliefin the idea of America. The idea that no matter where you come from, orwhat you look like, or who your parents are, this is a place whereanything is possible; where anyone can make it; where we look out foreach other, and take care of each other; where we rise and fall as onenation - as one people. It's an idea that's worth fighting for - an ideafor which so many Americans have given that last full measure ofdevotion. Now it falls to us to advance that idea just as so manygenerations have before.