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Sen. Robert C. Byrd: ‘On the brink of war’
June 28, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.

Here is a speech that Sen. Robert C. Byrd delivered on the Senate floor on Feb. 12, 2003:

Madam President, to contemplate war is to think about the most horrible of human experience. On this February day, as this Nation stands at the brink of battle, every American on some level must be contemplating the horrors of war.

My wife says to me at night: Do you think we ought to get some of those large bottles, the large jugs, and fill them with water? She says: Go up to the attic and see if we don’t have two or three there. I believe we have two or three there.

And so I went up to the attic last evening and came back to report to her that, no, we didn’t have any large jugs of water, but we had some small ones, perhaps some gallon jugs filled with water. And she talked about buying up a few things, groceries and canned goods to put away.

I would suspect that kind of conversation is going on in many towns across this great, broad land of ours. And yet this Chamber is for the most part ominously, dreadfully silent. You can hear a pin drop. Listen. You can hear a pin drop. There is no debate. There is no discussion. There is no attempt to lay out for the Nation the pros and cons of this particular war. There is nothing.

What would Gunning Bedford of Delaware think about it? What would John Dickinson of Delaware think about it? What would George Read think about it? What would they say?

We stand passively mute in the Senate today, paralyzed by our own uncertainty, seemingly stunned by the sheer turmoil of events. Only on the editorial pages of some of our newspapers is there much substantive discussion concerning the prudence or the imprudence of engaging in this particular war. I can imagine hearing the walls of this Chamber ring just before the great war between the States, a war that tore this Nation asunder and out of which the great State of West Virginia was born.

But today we hear nothing, almost nothing, by way of debate. This is no small conflagration that we contemplate. It is not going to be a video game. It may last a day or 6 days. God created Earth, and man, the stars, the planets, and the Moon in 6 days. This war may last 6 days. It may last 6 weeks. It could last longer. This is no small conflagration that we contemplate. This is no simple attempt to defang a villain. No, this coming battle, if it materializes, represents a turning point in U.S. foreign policy and possibly a turning point in the recent history of the world.

The flag over the U.S. Capitol flies at half staff in honor of the passing of West Virginia Democratic Senator Robert C. Byrd in Washington Monday, June 28, 2010. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

This Nation is about to embark upon the first test of a revolutionary doctrine applied in an extraordinary way, at an unfortunate time–the doctrine of preemption, no small matter–the idea that the United States or any other nation can legitimately attack a nation that is not imminently threatening but which may be threatening in the future.

The idea that the United States may attack a sovereign government because of a dislike for a particular regime is a radical, new twist on the traditional idea of self-defense. It appears to be in contravention of international law and the U.N. Charter. And it is being tested at a time of worldwide terrorism, making many countries around the globe wonder if they will soon be on our hit list, or some other nation’s hit list.

High-level administration figures recently refused to take nuclear weapons off the table when discussing a possible attack on Iraq. What could be more destabilizing? What could be more world shattering? What could be more future shattering? What could be more unwise than this kind of uncertainty, particularly in a world where globalism has tied the vital economic and security interests of so many nations so closely together?

There are huge cracks emerging in our time-honored alliances. One wonders what is going to happen, and about what is happening to the United Nations. One should pause to reflect on what is happening there at the United Nations, formed 54 years ago. And we say: If you are not with us, you are against us. That is a pretty hard rule to lay down to the United Nations. If you are not with us, you are against us. If you don’t see it our way, take the highway. We say to Germany and we say to France–both of whom have been around longer than we–if you don’t see it our way, we will just brush you to the side.

Do we fail to think about a possible moment down the road, a bit further on, when we may wish to have Germany and France working with us and thinking with us, standing with us, because there is a larger specter, at least in my mind, looming behind the specter of Saddam Hussein and Iraq. There looms a larger specter, that of North Korea, which has one or two nuclear weapons now, and others within reach within a few weeks. So there are huge cracks, I say, emerging in our time-honored alliances, and U.S. intentions are suddenly subject to damaging worldwide speculation.

Anti-Americanism based on mistrust, misinformation, suspicion, and alarming rhetoric from U.S. leaders is fracturing the once solid alliance against global terrorism which existed after September 11, 2001.

Here at home, people are warned of imminent terrorist attacks, with little guidance as to when or where such attacks might occur. Family members are being called to active duty, with no idea of the duration of their stay away from their hearthside, away from their homes, away from their loved ones, with no idea of the duration of their stay or what horrors they may have to face, perhaps in the near future. Communities are being left with less than adequate police and fire protection, while we are being told that a terrorist attack may be imminent. What about those communities like little Sophia, WV?

Did the people out there know it? Some of us attempted to tell the American people about these efforts, but the press has not picked up on it very well. Communities are being left with less than adequate police and fire protection. Other essential services are also shortstaffed. The mood of the Nation is grim, is the only way I know how to put it. The economy is stumbling. Economic growth is worse than it has been in 50 years. Fuel prices are rising and may soon spike higher.

This administration, now in power for a little over 2 years, must be judged on its record. I believe that record is dismal. In that scant 2 years, this administration has squandered a large projected surplus of some $5.6 trillion. How much is that? That is $5,600 for every minute since Jesus Christ was born.

Let me say that again. In that scant 2 years–I am talking about the last 2 years–of this administration’s record, this administration has squandered a large projected surplus of some $5.6 trillion over the next decade and taken us to projected deficits as far as the human eye can see. This administration’s domestic policy has put many of our States, including my own, in a dire

financial condition, underfunding scores of essential programs for the people, the people out there who are watching through those electronic lenses.

This administration has fostered policies that have slowed economic growth. This administration has ignored urgent matters such as the crisis in health care for our elderly. This administration has been slow to provide adequate funding for homeland security. The distinguished Senator from Illinois, Mr. Durbin, and I have been talking about that.

This administration has been reluctant to better protect our long and porous borders to the north and to the south, and to the east and to the west, where the great oceans form the borders.

In foreign policy, this administration has failed to find Osama bin Laden. In fact, yesterday we heard from him again marshaling his forces and urging them to kill, kill, kill.

This administration has split traditional alliances, possibly crippling for all time international order, crippling entities such as the United Nations and NATO. This administration has called into question the traditional worldwide perception of the United States as being a well-intentioned peacemaking, peace loving, peacekeeping nation.

This administration has turned the patient art of diplomacy on its head. It has turned the patient art of diplomacy into threats, labeling, and name calling of the sort that reflects quite poorly on the intelligence and sensitivity of our leaders

and which will have consequences for years to come, calling heads of state pygmies, labeling whole countries as evil–as though we are not evil, as though there is no country that is not evil–denigrating powerful European allies as irrelevant. These types of crude insensitivities can do our great Nation no good.

We may have massive military might, and we have, but remember we have had massive military might before. How many millions of men marched to the drums of war only 60 years ago? Thirteen million American men under arms, was it? Millions.

While we may have massive military might today, we cannot fight a global war on terrorism alone. We need the cooperation and the friendship of our time-honored allies, as well as the newer found friends whom we can attract with our wealth. Our awesome military machine will do us little good if we suffer another devastating attack on our homeland which severely damages this economy.

Our military manpower is already stretched thin, and they are taking them from our States every day. Yesterday, I talked to the Senate about the vacancies, about the empty seats at the dinner tables in the homes of many West Virginians, because of the National Guard and Reserve departures every day from the State of West Virginia. Yes, there they come. They are law enforcement officers. They are State troopers. They are road builders. They are doctors. They are teachers. They are Sunday school teachers. These are the men and women who keep the lights burning when the snows fall and darkness comes. But on whom will we depend when these men and women are gone to foreign lands to fight a war if a war faces us here at home, a different kind of war.

Our awesome military machine will do us little good if we suffer another devastating attack on our homeland which severely damages our economy.

As I say, our military forces are already being stretched thin and we will need the augmenting support of those nations that can supply troop strength, not just sign letters cheering us on.

The war in Afghanistan has cost us $37 billion so far. Yes, we bombed those caves. We ran them into the holes, but they could not hide. We ran them out of the holes, and we ran behind them to get them. But there is evidence that terrorism may already be starting to regain its hold in that region. We have not found Bin Laden, and unless we secure the peace in Afghanistan, the dark dens of terrorism may yet again flourish in that remote and devastated land.

Pakistan, as well, is at risk of destabilizing forces. This administration has not finished the first war against terrorism, and yet it is eager to embark on another conflict with perils much greater than those in Afghanistan. Is our attention span that short? Have we not learned that after winning the war, one must also secure the peace?

Yet we hear little, precious little, about the aftermath of war in Iraq. In the absence of plans, speculation abroad is rife. Will we seize Iraq’s oil fields, becoming an occupying power which controls the price and supply of that nation’s oil for the foreseeable future? There are some who think so.

To whom do we propose to hand the reins of power in Iraq after Saddam Hussein? Will our war inflame the Muslim world, resulting in devastating attacks on Israel? Will Israel retaliate with its own very potent nuclear arsenal? What are we about to unleash here? The genie is getting out of the bottle. Can it ever be put back? Will the Jordanian and Saudi Arabian Governments be toppled by radicals, bolstered by Iran, which has much closer ties to terrorism than Iraq? Could a disruption of the world’s oil supply lead to a worldwide recession? Has our senselessly bellicose language and our callous disregard for the interests and opinions of other nations increased the global race to join the nuclear club and make proliferation an even more lucrative practice for nations which need the income?

In only the space of 2 short years, this reckless and arrogant administration has initiated policies which may reap disastrous consequences for years.

We have heard it asked, Are you better off today than you were 4 years ago? The question can be shortened: Are we better off than we were 2 years ago?

One can understand the anger and the shock of any President after the savage attacks of September 11. One can appreciate the frustration of having only a shadow to chase and an amorphous, fleeting enemy on which it is nearly impossible to exact retribution. But to turn one’s frustration and anger into the kind of extremely destabilizing and dangerous foreign policy debacle that the world is currently witnessing is inexcusable from any administration charged with the awesome power and responsibility of guiding the destiny of the greatest superpower on the planet.

Frankly, many of the pronouncements made by this administration are outrageous. There is no other word. Yet this Chamber is hauntingly silent–silent. What would John Langdon of New Hampshire say about that? What would Nicholas Gilman of New Hampshire say about that? What would Rufus King and Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts say? What would Alexander Hamilton, who signed the Constitution, from the State of New York, say about the silence in this Chamber? What would Dr. Samuel Johnson of Connecticut say about the silence in this Chamber? What would William Paterson or William Livingston or David Brearley or Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey, the signers of the Constitution, have to say about the silence in this Senate which they created? What would Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Mifflin, James Wilson, Robert Morris, of Pennsylvania, have to say? What would Thomas FitzSimons or Gouverneur Morris, who signed the Constitution on behalf of the State of Pennsylvania, have to say about the silence that rings and reverberates from these walls today, the silence with respect to the war on which we are about to enter? What would they have to say? What would their comments be? Gunning Bedford, George Read of Delaware, Daniel Carroll, Dan of St. Thomas Jenifer of Maryland. These and more.

What would these signers of the Constitution have to say about this Senate which they created when they note the silence, that is deafening, that emanates from that Chamber on the great subject, the great issue of war and peace? Nothing. Nothing is being said except by a few souls.

Yet this Chamber is hauntingly silent–hauntingly silent on what is possibly the eve of horrific infliction of death and destruction on the population of the nation of Iraq. Think about that.

Oh, I know Saddam Hussein is the person who is primarily responsible. But how about us? How about ourselves?

Yes, there are going to be old men dying. There will be women dying. There will be children, little boys and girls dying if this war goes forward in Iraq. And American men and women will die, too.

Iraq has a population, I might add, of which over 50 percent is under age 15.

Over 50 percent of the population in Iraq is under age 15. What is said about that? This Chamber is silent–silent. When it is possibly only days before we send thousands of our own citizens to face unimagined horrors of chemical and biological warfare, this Chamber is silent. The rafters should ring. The press galleries should be filled. Senators should be at their seats listening to questions being asked about this war, questions to which the American people out there have a right to expect answers. The American people are longing for information and they are not getting it. This Chamber is silent. On the eve of what could possibly be a vicious terrorist attack in retaliation for our attack on Iraq, it is business as usual here in the Senate, and business as usual means it is pretty quiet. There is not much going on in the Senate. Business as usual.

Oh, I know it may be scare talk to talk about what may happen in the event of a terrorist attack. But when the Twin Towers fell, it wasn’t scare talk. When hundreds of local firefighters and police officers, law enforcement officers died as the walls of the Twin Towers came tumbling down, it wasn’t scare talk. It wasn’t scare talk.

We are truly sleepwalking through history. In my heart of hearts I pray that this great Nation and its good and trusting citizens are not in for a rudest of awakenings. To engage in war is always to pick a wild card. And war must always be a last resort, not a first choice.

But I truly must question the judgment of any President who can say that a massive unprovoked military attack on a nation which is over 50 percent children is in the highest moral traditions of our country. This war is not necessary at this time. Pressure appears to be having a good result in Iraq. Our mistake was to put ourselves in a corner so quickly. Our challenge is now to find a graceful way out of a box of our own making. Perhaps–just perhaps–there is still a way, if we allow more time.

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