John Kennedy, Liberty, and Iraq

A quote of President John F Kennedy near his grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

A quote of President John F Kennedy near his grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”   John F. Kennedy

I went to Iraq in the summer of 2003 with those words in my back pocket…literally.  Immediately prior to my departure to Iraq, a good friend, mentor, and Army Chaplain gave me his business card with those words printed on the back.  That card remained with me throughout my days in Baghdad, Mosul, Irbil, Dahuk, Kirkuk, and Sulaymaniyah.  Those words gave me purpose and motivation as I sought to contribute in my own very small way to give liberty a foothold for the people of Iraq after their years of suppression under Saddam Hussein.

Kennedy uttered his bold words in support of liberty in the same address as his “Ask not…” challenge in 1961.  Setting political leanings aside, most would agree that Kennedy’s speech was one of the most inspiring presidential inaugural addresses ever given.  That address ignited a generation and got us started on our way to the moon.

Today we are left to wonder if those were just hallow words, or can they still reflect America’s resolve in the support of liberty.  The commitment to “oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty” has never been an easy task.   Yet we met the challenge in Germany, Japan, and South Korea.  In each of those situations, we committed to a long-term presence to permit the new flame of liberty to grow, mature, and develop that could withstand perpetual threats of outside elements.  Leadership of high resolve and profound human sacrifice underlies each success.  And the citizens of each of those three countries enjoy the fruits of liberty to this very day.

But today I am left utterly disappointed with the state of Iraq.  America clearly failed to carry through with our promise to “assure the survival and the success of liberty” for the people of Iraq.  By ‘walking away’ from Iraq we allowed their flickering flame of liberty to become a raging uncontrolled wildfire fanned by violent outside winds that now destroys everything in its path.  We were Iraq’s firemen until they could develop their own capability.  Iraq didn’t stand a chance after we pulled out.  Our ‘firemen’ did everything asked of them while there.  Pulling them off the job resulted in a disaster it seems anyone could have anticipated.  The real failure was a failure of leadership and resolve to stand behind our national promise.   And while Iraq ‘burns’, the world’s trust of America burns in the ashes alongside it.

And we are left to ask…Now what?  Perhaps Kennedy also provided the answer in the same speech:

“In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty.”