As the press labors today to capture the life and legacy of the late Senator Edward Kennedy, it will be interesting to see if anyone makes mention of Kennedy's response to one of the singular events of recent years -- the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. On September 27, 2002, Kennedy gave a speech at Johns Hopkins' Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. concerning the war.
In the speech, Kennedy evinced many of the same qualities for which he is being lionized today. His oration combined the powerful idealism that powered his opposition to the invasion with the same generosity of spirit that fueled so many across-the-aisle gestures, and, in the speech, revealed itself in a refusal to demonize his political opponents. One other aspect of the speech that might be worth mentioning today? The fact that Kennedy got it right.
Kennedy's speech is astoundingly prescient, to put it mildly. Key sections include:
In the months that followed September 11, the Bush Administration marshaled an international coalition. Today, 90 countries are enlisted in the effort, from providing troops to providing law enforcement, intelligence, and other critical support.
But I am concerned that using force against Iraq before other means are tried will sorely test both the integrity and effectiveness of the coalition. Just one year into the campaign against Al Qaeda, the Administration is shifting focus, resources, and energy to Iraq. The change in priority is coming before we have fully eliminated the threat from Al Qaeda, before we know whether Osama Bin Laden is dead or alive, and before we can be assured that the fragile post-Taliban government in Afghanistan will consolidate its authority.
With all the talk of war, the Administration has not explicitly acknowledged, let alone explained to the American people, the immense post-war commitment that will be required to create a stable Iraq.
The Bush Administration says America can fight a war in Iraq without undermining our most pressing national security priority -- the war against Al Qaeda. But I believe it is inevitable that a war in Iraq without serious international support will weaken our effort to ensure that Al Qaeda terrorists can never, never, never threaten American lives again.
Even with the Taliban out of power, Afghanistan remains fragile. Security remains tenuous. Warlords still dominate many regions. Our reconstruction effort, which is vital to long-term stability and security, is halting and inadequate. Some Al Qaeda operatives - no one knows how many - have faded into the general population. Terrorist attacks are on the rise. President Karzai, who has already survived one assassination attempt, is still struggling to solidify his hold on power. And although neighboring Pakistan has been our ally, its stability is far from certain.
We have known for many years that Saddam Hussein is seeking and developing weapons of mass destruction. Our intelligence community is also deeply concerned about the acquisition of such weapons by Iran, North Korea, Libya, Syria and other nations. But information from the intelligence community over the past six months does not point to Iraq as an imminent threat to the United States or a major proliferator of weapons of mass destruction.
War with Iraq before a genuine attempt at inspection and disarmament, or without genuine international support -- could swell the ranks of Al Qaeda sympathizers and trigger an escalation in terrorist acts.
That last point, by the way, is an almost universally underappreciated one. Yet it's very, tragically true.
In May of 2008, Eric Boehlert, reflecting on the news of Kennedy's brain cancer diagnosis, wrote a piece for Media Matters, quantifying the inattention the media gave to Kennedy's speech. By his count, the network news dedicated a few brief sentences (32 words on NBC, 31 on ABC, CBS Evening news led all comers with a whopping 40 words) the night of the speech. By Sunday Morning, the speech was forgotten, with no mention of any sort on Meet The Press, Face The Nation, or This Week. And what of the major newspapers? Of them, Boehlert writes:
The Kennedy coverage in the major newspapers wasn't much better. At The Washington Post, Kennedy's newsworthy speech, a clarion call against Bush's pre-emptive war, garnered exactly one sentence -- 36 words total in coverage. Keep in mind, during 2002, the Post published more than 1,000 articles and columns about Iraq, nearly 1 million words. But the Post set aside just 36 words for Kennedy's farsighted war speech.
What was so remarkable was that Kennedy delivered his address at the time when there was already a media narrative unfolding about how Democrats, anxious about the political ramifications of not supporting a then-popular president, were not voicing stiff opposition to the planned invasion.
Two days before Kennedy gave his speech, the Post detailed in an A1 article how "[d]ozens of congressional Democrats are frustrated with their leadership for rushing to embrace President Bush's Iraqi war resolution and fostering an impression the party overwhelmingly backs a unilateral strike against Saddam Hussein."
When Kennedy stepped forward and answered the specific issue raised by the Post, what did the newspaper do? It devoted 36 words to Kennedy's address.
Kennedy's speech, sadly, came at a time when the press largely considered opposition to the war and seriousness as two mutually exclusive concepts. As a result, very few media organs will be able to pull this moment from their institutional memories today, largely because they couldn't be bothered to report on it when it happened.
Eliminating the Threat: The Right Course of Action for Disarming Iraq, Combating Terrorism, Protecting the Homeland, and Stabilizing the Middle East [Ted Kennedy @ Johns Hopkins SAIS]
Why did the press ignore Ted Kennedy in 2002?