Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft
"Leadership in the Cause of Liberty"
Robert H. Krieble Lecture
New Orleans, LA
April 24, 2003
(Note: The Attorney General often deviates from prepared remarks.)
Good evening and thank you, Ed.
It is an honor to be introduced by a man who has served our nation in so many important roles, and who continues to work tirelessly to inspire fellow citizens to take up the cause of liberty.
I also thank the Heritage Foundation, and the organizers of this evening's lecture, for their invitation to discuss the values that have shaped our nation and the leadership needed to defend those ideals.
The Heritage Foundation has long understood the power of ideas in combating tyranny and defending liberty. Heritage has been a fount of knowledge and wisdom spreading our Founding ideas and ensuring they are a continuing source for our nation's greatness. The Spirit of Justice awards given tonight represent that same fidelity to limited government, the rule of law, and our Constitution.
Of course, I can not go without noting that former Attorney General Meese and I have much in common.
As attorneys general we both know what it is like to face a serious threat from a global enemy. We both know what it is like to work closely with a President we admire and trust, and who is a principled defender of freedom. Finally, we both know what it is like to be showered with praise and glowing portrayals from Washington's press and pundits.
As attorney general, Ed Meese provided a model of leadership. He was never intimidated or cowed. He always stood firm in his defense of freedom and the rule of law-and because of his deep respect for the Constitution, the American people respected him. These are the qualities that not only made him a successful attorney general, but make him a great American as well.
As many of you know, this year marks the 30th anniversary of another milestone in the defense of liberty: the establishment of the freedom-based public interest law movement-founded by General Meese and led by so many of you here tonight.
For three decades, this movement has dedicated itself to protecting the Founders' vision and the rule of law as well as the lives and liberties of every American.
This movement is a living monument to Robert H. Krieble-the man for whom this night is named. He, too, understood that a vigorous defense of freedom is the duty of every generation and a call to action for every American.
Robert Krieble came to know the rich blessings of liberty through his hard work and entrepreneurship. He felt a debt of gratitude to the great Americans who fought for and founded this nation. He generously turned his focus to preserving for future generations the freedom with which he was blessed.
His efforts ranged from supporting great think tanks such as Heritage to smuggling fax machines to citizens in the Soviet Union to help spread the ideas of freedom. He understood that in the great marketplace of ideas, freedom needs persuasive voices, persistent hearts, and courageous acts.
Half a world away, young Americans are now risking their lives to defend liberty. We have seen them wage one of the most successful and awe-inspiring military campaigns the world has ever seen. The war was decisive and humane. Victory was overwhelming. Peace and freedom will be built on its solid moral foundations.
We owe these young Americans our thanks as well as our prayers. We also owe it to future Americans to keep the light of liberty burning bright.
The book of Proverbs proclaims that where there is no vision, the people perish. But where there are no people, the vision perishes. For those familiar with the bloodstained history of the 20th Century, the importance of vision and leadership in the cause of freedom cannot be overemphasized.
For much of the 20th Century, the dehumanizing ideologies of totalitarianism suppressed freedom and opportunity for millions around the world. Now in the 21st Century, terrorism threatens freedom, but in a far more insidious way. Individuals and transnational networks now plot from within free societies to spread fear, foment hatred, and undermine liberty.
Looking back on history, we can see moments when such forces opposed to freedom became so powerful that they appeared nearly invincible. Sometimes, it seemed that raw power was destined to win and then rule over creativity, humanity, and the genius of free individuals.
As we reflect on our modern struggle-the war against terrorism-we must ask ourselves, why have we prevailed in the past and why will we prevail in the future?
The answer is simple, undeniable, and humbling: Leadership.
At key moments in the 20th Century, great and courageous leaders stood up to the forces of tyranny and ambition. Leading individuals raised their voices and mustered all their eloquence to rally the freedom-loving to fight the tide of oppression and injustice.
The names of these heroes evoke their great deeds and recall the stirring words that fanned the flames of freedom: Winston Churchill Harry Truman Margaret Thatcher and President Ronald Reagan.
These are world leaders who reminded free people of the vision and the deeds that defined their nations and distinguished their cause.
President Bush has shown he too is a leader in this tradition. He identified the extent of the threat we face. He mobilized the forces of freedom to use our nation's influence and position in the world to lead us into a safer and more secure future.
As our nation fights the war on terrorism, the lives and words of great leaders remind us that in pursuing our cause we do not seek to dominate or control. We seek to stir hearts, inspire action, and uphold our highest ideals.
We can learn from Churchill, Truman, Thatcher, Reagan and President Bush what defines the great leaders and nations that change history for the better.
What stands out first and foremost in a survey of such leaders is that there is a stark difference between leadership and mere governance. Governance focuses on the lowest, the least, the minimum threshold necessary to satisfy the status quo and those entrenched in power. Leadership inspires the best and aspires to the highest ideals.
Leadership forges consensus. It does not follow it.
Leadership is founded upon principle. It does not shift with every wind.
Leadership invokes values and speaks to hearts. It does not measure success by the numbers in a crowd or the opinions of the chattering classes.
Governance merely sets the lowest bar that a person must meet to be considered a member in good standing of a society. Nothing more.
Advocates of governance often focus on process over principles. As a result, they postpone serious challenges-kicking the can down the road and avoiding the challenges of leadership.
Winston Churchill explained why those who fail to confront brutal facts endanger us: "Each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last."
Throughout the 20th Century and into the dawn of the 21st, we have seen, firsthand, the cost of denial and delay-the concentration camps of Hitler's Germany, the executions and starvation of Stalin's Russia, and the terror and death of Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
Harry Truman committed the United States to the resolute opposition to such totalitarianism. In 1947, he told Congress that Americans must make the "frank recognition that totalitarian regimes imposed on free people, by direct or indirect aggression, undermine the foundations of international peace and hence the security of the United States."
From the very first days following the terrorist attacks on September 11th, President Bush understood the threat posed by global terrorism. He understood what terrorists shared with all totalitarians: an implacable hatred of freedom.
President Bush rejected the model of mere governance to deal with terrorism and embraced the challenge of authentic leadership. President Bush sought bold measures and decisive actions. He did not push to do as little as possible. He sought to do as much as possible to safeguard freedom for future generations. President Bush understands that true leaders do not defer problems. They define problems and they deliver solutions.
While it was understandable that some wished for immediate and symbolic retaliation for September 11th, President Bush rejected the idea of firing missiles at empty tents or roaming camels. The President resolutely committed our nation to a bold, long-term plan that would protect liberty and free an entire nation. That campaign and the peace that has followed show our values. Women in Afghanistan now walk the streets, go to work, even serve in government. Children-both boys and girls-can obtain an education.
Leadership is a call to greatness in which character is revealed. It is informed by years of moral choice. It is the furnace in which the steel of discipline is fired and forged and the mettle is tested.
Those who are led and those who first hear the call of action are inspired and emboldened only by leaders who offer a personal example and inspiration. A great leader provides the model of action that pushes or pulls a people to achieve their highest or best calling. He or she does this by posing clear moral choices.
In the 1980s, we saw such leadership when President Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher came to office. They were given economies in disrepair, nations burdened by self-doubt, and a world overrun by extreme ideologies. But with uncompromising moral clarity they took on these challenges.
President Reagan put the choice before people: "[I]f history teaches anything, it teaches that simpleminded appeasement or wishful thinking about our adversaries is folly. It means the betrayal of our past, the squandering of our freedom . I urge you to beware the temptation of pride-the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil."
President Reagan's words-like President Bush's words-were often condemned or ridiculed by pundits and elites who blanched at the word "evil." But President Reagan did not retreat. Totalitarianism, he charged, was doomed to end up on the "ash heap of history."
President Bush outlined the dangers from malevolent regimes when he spoke to the American people last year about the threat posed by the "axis of evil." He understands that evildoers exist and commit acts of unspeakable horror when in power.
President Bush took up a mighty challenge in Iraq to end a regime that used chemical weapons on its own people, leaving thousands dead, blind, or disfigured. This is a regime whose capacity for evil was a threat to the United States. This was a regime that tortured children while their parents were forced to watch. This was a regime whose methods of repression were limited only by the twisted imaginations of depraved minds. This was a regime that embraced electric shock, burning with hot irons, dripping acid on the skin, mutilation with electric drills, and brutal rapes.
Thanks to leadership, thanks to President Bush, this is a regime that no longer exists.
Leaders of free nations present stark choices. They trust the people to hear the call to action, judge them by their deeds, and then unite together in defense.
In explaining the coalition's cause in Iraq, Prime Minister Tony Blair understood the lessons of history: "So our choice is clear: back down and leave Saddam hugely strengthened, or proceed to disarm him by force. Retreat might give us a moment of respite, but years of repentance at our weakness would, I believe, follow."
In contrast, those who practice mere governance ignore persuasion and appeal and place their futures in the hands of polls and process. You cannot claim to be a leader if all you do is take a poll, figure out where the people are going, and then vault yourself ahead of them and declare, "I got here first. I am your leader!"
Pole-vaulting does not equal leadership. If you think about it, a bus driver always gets to the final stop before any of the passengers, but that does not make him a leader. Leadership determines where we should be going by providing vision and then drives support for the plan to get us there.
Winston Churchill eloquently decried those who sought to hide behind a crowd instead of to inspire action: "I see that a speaker at the week-end said that this was a time when leaders should keep their ears to the ground. All I can say is that the British nation will find it very hard to look up to leaders who are detected in that somewhat ungainly posture."
Throughout our war on terrorism, President Bush has stood tall in his defense of freedom. Just weeks ago, critics charged that "thousands" of American soldiers would be killed in Iraq. Critics charged that the world system was being destabilized and that the "Arab street" would explode into flames. They insisted arms inspections continue, convinced that the crocodiles would eventually eat their fill and cease being crocodiles.
President Bush did not allow these voices of critics to distract him from hearing the muffled cries of those desperate to be lifted into the light of freedom. President Bush saw that the war against Iraq reinforced our war on terrorism and made the cause of liberty stronger.
Since September 11th, the enemies of freedom have seen decisive action from the United States.
For every American, the results of our lawful efforts should be encouraging-we are winning the war on terrorism. For every terrorist, our ongoing successes are a reminder the final outcome of our nation's war against terror is not in doubt.
- To date, we have captured more than 3000 terrorists worldwide;
- Forty percent of al Qaeda's leadership has been capture or killed;
- We have identified and tracked hundreds of suspected terrorists throughout the United States;
- We have broken up four alleged terrorist cells in Buffalo, Portland, Detroit and Seattle;
- We have brought 237 criminal charges in our courts; and
- We have obtained convictions or guilty pleas from 119 individuals, including shoe-bomber Richard Reid; "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh; and four of six members of a Buffalo, New York terror cell.
We have cut off terrorist funding, including:
- Designating 36 groups and individuals as terrorist organizations;
- Freezing $124 million in assets and more than 600 accounts around the world; as well as
- Conducting 70 investigations into terrorist financing, with 23 convictions or guilty pleas to date.
We know the battle is not yet won, nor does the war to defend liberty ever end. But as President Bush has declared, "These days are good days in the history of freedom." The nightmare of Saddam Hussein's ambition and his lust for power are ended. For the people of Iraq a new life in the sunshine of freedom has begun.
For the people of America we take another step in our journey to live in freedom and under the rule of law.
We know from history that great leaders and great causes are rare. But in America, the spirit of our nation is always renewed and our greatness as a people is ever strengthened by our dedication to the cause of freedom.
With your help, I know we can keep alive these ideals that inspire and ensure our nation remains as powerful as we are just, and a beacon for freedom-loving people around the world.
Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.