Well, welcome. Before I begin, I do want to pause to express my deep condolences to the people of Spain and the families of loved ones of those who -- some 200 known dead. Spain is a valued and key partner in the global war on terror, so our hearts and prayers go out to all of those friends that we have across the Atlantic. I should add that their loss is roughly the same as we lost here at the Pentagon.
Next month -- on April 19th to be exact -- will mark the 229th anniversary of the so-called “shot heard around the world.”
On that day in 1775, 77 Minutemen faced 700 British regulars on Lexington Green. Their commander, Captain John Parker, told his men, "don't shoot first, but if they mean to have war let it begin here."
And so began the fight for America's independence. Out of that war -- our country's first fight for freedom over tyranny -- a new nation was born, the first nation on Earth founded on man's God-given rights and freedoms. And Americans have been fighting to preserve freedom ever since.
Next week -- March 19th -- will mark the first anniversary of another fight for freedom -- Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Its opening shots -- if not heard, were at least seen around the world, and remind us that Americans are still willing to fight to ensure that freedom will endure.
And like the patriots of 1775, Americans do not come easily to war, but also like them, neither do Americans take freedom lightly.
For 12 years, through 17 UN Security Council resolutions, America -- and the world -- gave Saddam Hussein every opportunity to avoid war -- simply by living up to the terms of the first Gulf War: that they disarm and prove that they had done so.
Instead of disarming as Kazakhstan, South Africa, and Ukraine did -- in their time, and Libya is now doing -- Saddam chose deception and defiance. He repeatedly rejected those resolutions and systematically deceived UN inspectors about his weapons and his intent.
The world knew that Saddam Hussein's record was a poor one: He had used chemical weapons against Iran and his own citizens; he'd invaded two of his neighbors; he'd launched ballistic missiles at Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain; and repeatedly fired upon US and UK aircraft and their crews patrolling in the northern and southern no-fly zones.
Recognizing the threat, President Bush went back to the United Nations -- and the U.N. gave Iraq one “final opportunity,” as they phrased it, to disarm, and prove that it had done so. The President went to Congress -- which voted to support the use of force if Saddam did not do so. And, when Saddam passed up that final opportunity, he was given 48 hours to leave the country -- still another final opportunity.
Only then, after every peaceful option had been exhausted, did the President and the Coalition order the liberation of Iraq.
No -- Americans do not come easily to war, but neither do Americans take freedom lightly.
Last November, I was speaking to the troops at Osan Air Base in South Korea -- and I told them about a question that was posed to me earlier that day in Seoul, Korea. A woman reporter, clearly a bit young to remember the Korean War, asked, why should -- this was during the debate in the Korean Parliament about whether they should send troops to Iraq. And she said, "Why should Koreans send their young men and women halfway around the globe to be killed or wounded in Iraq?"
And I'd just come from the Korean War Memorial which -- it's a big wall with the names -- by each state in the union, the wall lists all the Americans who were killed in that war. And I was going to go out and put a wreath on a memorial out behind there, and I looked up, and there was the name of a close friend.
I remember saying to the reporter that her question was a fair one. Why should Koreans send their young people halfway across the globe to be killed or wounded? And I said it would have been a fair question for an American to ask 50 years ago. Why should Americans send their young people to Korea?
And then I asked her to look out the window. And we were in about the eighth floor of a building in Seoul, Korea, and you look out there, and it's just filled with lights and cars and energy and people doing things, a robust economy that's just an economic miracle, and freedom. People can say what they want and do what they want.
And I said to her, "If you look out there and then know that if you look down from a satellite on the Korean peninsula, north of the DMZ is nothing but darkness, with one little pinprick of light in Pyongyang, the capital." And -- same people, same resources, same opportunities, and in one case, the millions of people are thriving, and in one case they're starving.
And so Korean freedom was won at a terrible cost, thousands and thousands of lives, including 33,000 Americans lost their lives. And the question is, was it worth it? You bet, just as it was worth it in Germany, in France, in Italy and in the Pacific during World War II -- and, I would add, in Afghanistan and Iraq today. Some 50 million people today are liberated. Freedom is worth defending, and if it's not defended, it dies.
Was it easy? No. And it's certainly not easy today. We all know that. But at the end of the day, when freedom and self- government have taken root in Iraq, and that country becomes, as it will, not a threat but a force for good in that region and the world, the rightness of the coalition's efforts will be just as clear as one could see looking out of that window.
And that's what I told our forces a couple of weeks ago in Afghanistan and Iraq as I thanked them for the truly great job they're doing for the people of those two newly liberated countries and for the safety and the security of the American people here at home, as well as for the freedom of people across the globe.
Today, I thank you, those here and those in the Department of Defense, military and civilian, serving in Washington and elsewhere across the globe, for those same things because you are the men and women behind the troops, the ones who enable them to do the jobs that they do every day. So I thank each of you for your service.
Earlier this week, the Iraqi Governing Council signed an “interim constitution,” -- the document that will serve as the framework for their government until a permanent constitution is adopted. It guarantees:
- freedom of religion, of worship, of expression;
- the right to assemble and to organize political parties;
- the right to demonstrate; the right to vote.
- It Guarantees right to a fair, speedy, and open trial, and prohibits discrimination based on gender, nationality, and religion,
- as well as arbitrary arrest and detention.
One year ago, none of those protections could have been imagined by the Iraqi people. Today they're real. It's an historic moment in history, one that shows the power of freedom.
To be sure, the struggle for freedom has transformed the lives of the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. You can see it just by going through the streets in those two countries -- as I did a week and a half ago. But it's transforming us as well, I would say.
As a nation, we're rediscovering our character and our courage -- qualities so profound that even the youngest among us recognize and understand that something momentous is happening -- it's not just in the mountains and the deserts of the Middle East, but in our own neighborhoods and in our communities.
Which brings me to our guest today.
I guess it was January 20th the President, in his State of the Union message, introduced Ashley Pearson, who is sitting right over here.
She is a young lady who embodies those qualities to be sure. And even at her young age, Ashley understands the importance of freedom, appreciates the strength of the men and women who guard and protect us every day, and I should add recognizes the responsibilities of citizenship.
In a letter to the President she wrote, "tell me what I can do to save our country" and "If you can, send a letter to the troops" and "please put: Ashley Pearson believes in you."
By reading her letter during his January State of the Union address, President Bush conveyed Ashley's message to the troops. As for what she -- and all of us -- can do for them, the President said, "When you and your friends see men and women in uniform, walk up and say 'Thank You' to them."
So I'd like to have Ashley and her parents, Natalie and Tom, and her brother, Mark, stand. Ashley, we welcome you and your family -- and we thank you for your letter and for recognizing the superb service of the wonderful men and women in uniform and for being with us today.
As we prepare to mark one year since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom; and as we think about the tens of thousands of U.S. forces there, and in Afghanistan, and elsewhere around the globe, fighting the global war on terror, we say to all of them, and to all of you here today: Thank you for fighting freedom's fight. And know that millions of Americans believe in you. Thank you.
Thank you very much.
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