Address to the People's Congress of Libya

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Address to the People's Congress of Libya  (2004) 
by Joe Biden
Delivered on 3 March 2004.

Salam ale Qum.

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you. I traveled a great distance to get here, but in so many ways, in recent years, the distance between Libya and America has seemed even greater, almost insurmountable. Now, there is real hope that we will bridge the great divide that has kept us apart. But there is still much work to be done. It is in that spirit of hope that I stand before you... and that I send my greetings to the Libyan people who are watching these proceedings in their homes. At the outset, let me tell you who I am and why I am here. I am a United States Senator. I represent a small portion of my country – the state of Delaware, which is located between Washington and New York.

As you know, in America there are no Kings or Princes, no Lords or Dukes, no Emirs or Sultans. Like you, we fought a war against colonialism for our freedom. The central belief in our system is that each individual should have an equal opportunity to succeed.

At home, I am surrounded by very strong women. A mother who instilled in her children the values of faith and community. A sister who was better at her studies than I was, and upon whose guidance our large family depends. A wife who is a respected professor in our community, not just smart, but also wise. And a daughter who knows she can be anything she wants to be.

Like most of the nearly 300 million Americans whose families arrived on our shores from every corner of the globe, I was not born to wealth or stature. I was not promised anything other than the opportunity granted to every American — the opportunity to go as far as I could dream.

I am sure that Libyan parents share the same hope for their children. I am sure it is a universal hope — but not one that can be realized in many countries. That’s one of the things that makes my country special.

I have served in the United States Senate for 31 years, elected democratically six times by the men and women of Delaware. Men and women. Young and old. Black and white, Hispanic and Asian. Christians, Jews, Hindus and yes, Arab-Americans and Muslims. You may not know that there are almost as many Muslims in the United States as there are citizens of Libya. And there are more Arab-Americans than all the people who live in Tripoli. Their votes count the same as everyone else.

I belong to the Democratic party. President Bush leads the other major political party – the Republican party. But I am here not as a representative of my party... not as a representative of Christian-Americans.... not as a representative of white Americans. I am here as a representative of my country who believes, along with many other Americans, that this is a moment of great possibility for Libya and for the relationship between our countries. But many of us remain skeptical.

For too long, our relationship has been marked by hostility. In fact, I have a personal connection to the terrible act that set back our relations for years.

I am a graduate of Syracuse University Law School. There is a wall at my school, erected to the memory of 270 people – including 35 young students who never returned home from their studies abroad. They lost their lives when Pan Am 103 was bombed out of the sky. Thirty-five is a number, a statistic. But each of those young people had a name. Each had a mother and a father, a sister and brother, and friends who loved them – and who still suffer their loss every single day. The victims were young men and women like Ken Bissett. He was an artist and a writer. Like Eric and Jason Coker, twin brothers. Eric was studying economics. Jason wanted to be a journalist. He might have been here today, reporting on this siginificant event. And like a kind hearted young woman named Keesha Weedon who wanted to help troubled children. Each of these young people had a past – and each had a future cut short by violence. Imagine if one of them had been your son or your daughter. Think about that for just a moment. Your government’s admission of responsibility for the bombing of Pan Am 103 was not only necessary – it was the right thing to do. And it was consistent with your traditions. In the words of the Koran: “As for him who shall repent and believe and do right, he happily may be one of the successful.” It appears now that your government wants to change in order to become “one of the successful.”

Americans will never forget the past. But we cannot allow it to stop us from building a more peaceful world that can prevent such tragedies in the future. That must be the legacy of those who lost their lives, and for those who carry their memory. And so while Americans remain wary, we also stand ready to walk with you if you are willing to take the difficult steps necessary to rejoin the community of nations. By accepting responsibility for the past... agreeing to abandon its weapons of mass destruction program... and joining the war on terrorism... your government is beginning to end Libya’s political and economic isolation. But what I want to say to you today is this: do not stop there. Aim higher. Go further.

For centuries, the people of Libya were denied the opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential. First, you were held back by outside colonizers. Then, you were led astray by misguided ideologies. The result is a great gulf between your rightful expectations and the reality of your lives .

You are right to expect good schools for your children and first rate doctors for your parents. You are right to expect to own your own home and to build your own business. You are right to expect newspapers with competing ideas and an internet connection in every home. You are right to expect the freedom to speak your mind without fear of being thrown in jail. So the question is: How do you make sure that history does not repeat itself and that you are not denied the opportunity to which you are entitled?

Your economic potential is extraordinary because of the natural resources buried in the ground. But your national potential is limitless, because of the human resources that are spread all across this land.

You have tremendous oil power. But it will only be meaningful if you use it to unleash the brain power of the Libyan people – especially the awesome potential of your youth. In fact, oil can be more of a burden than a benefit if it used as an excuse not to develop all aspects of your society... and if its proceeds are not widely shared and wisely invested in education, training and a strong foundation for the future.

Let me offer you a concrete example. It concerns patents – the legal protection the world gives to new ideas and inventions. They’re a good measure of the quality of a country’s educational system, its entrepreneurship, its innovation and its rule of law. Between 1980 and 1999, the nine leading Arab economies – each built on oil wealth – registered a mere 370 patents in my country. During that same period, South Korea alone registered 16,328 patents. Why? In the 21st century, human resources are the true wealth of any nation. You have a historic opportunity to free those human resources to their full potential. I urge you to seize it.

It may strike you as presumptuous that an American politician is offering advice that you did not seek. After all, my country has its own problems. Let me be clear: I have not come here to impose American views on you or to suggest we have all the answers. But I know that more than ever before, your fate and our future are joined. There was a time when the United States would have been satisfied with the status quo in the Middle East, North Africa and here in Libya. But the events of September 11, 2001 marked a turning point in how my country views the world, and specifically how it sees this region.

Americans now understand that the promise of our time is matched by peril. Ideas and innovations can travel the planet at the stroke of a computer key, spreading progress far and wide. But the same technology and openness that power these forces of construction also enable forces of destruction. As a result, problems in any one part of our planet can plague the entire world, including the United States. There is no mountain high enough or ocean wide enough to protect us. The question for America is what, if anything, can we do about this new reality? Make no mistake: the United States will meet and defeat any threat to the safety of our people and the security of our country. We have the will and we have the way to prevail.

But our physical prowess alone cannot solve the problem. We are engaged in much more than a contest of force. We are engaged in a war of ideas. I am convinced that war will be won by those who offer hope, not hatred... progress, not paralysis... a vision for the future, not an obsession with the past.

Those who attacked us on September 11 were beyond the reach of reason. Their blind hatred was not the bitter fruit of poverty – they were relatively prosperous people. It was not the product of Islam – they perverted a great faith. It was not the result of America’s support for Israel, as much as you may disagree with it. Osama Bin Laden almost never mentioned the Palestinian cause before the attacks. His focus was his own country, Saudi Arabia.

No, America’s aggressors were foot soldiers in a new war pitting believers in freedom, openness, and tolerance against the forces of radical fundamentalism and regression. It is not a clash between civilizations, but within civilizations – especially within the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Today, violent radicals have turned their terror on us. But make no mistake: they regard the large majority of moderate Muslims as their enemies as well. Hundreds of Muslims were among the more than 3000 dead in the World Trade Center and the victims of attacks in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Morocco. And if the radicals succeed, you will be their victims in another way as well, condemned to a future of hopelessness and despair.

I believe that the cause of hope and the tide of history is on the side of the moderates and modernizers — in this region, in my region and around the world. Our challenge is to reject their cynicism and hatred and to build an alliance of tolerance and progress.

We each have a job to do. Our job – America’s job – is first and foremost to listen to you –- to listen to your ideas, as well as your fears and concerns. And to do a much better job explaining our ideas and intentions.

But even if we do that well, human nature is the same world wide. It is rare to feel good about your neighbor’s new car when you’ve just lost your job. America’s military might, economic power and cultural reach make us present in peoples lives on every continent, in every country. Sometimes we do not recognize the conflicting emotions this can produce: respect and admiration, but also envy, resentment and fear.

There will always be those who do not like specific policies we advocate or the way we pursue them. That is your right. The burden is on us to make our case... and to have faith in our power to persuade, not just coerce. It may surprise you that most Americans don’t like the fact we’re the world’s sole superpower. They understand it thrusts upon them a responsibility they did not seek and would rather not bear. For example, the people I represent in Delaware understood but did not like the fact I voted to send their sons and daughters to Kosovo. They went to Kosovo to prevent the genocidal slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Muslim men, women and children by Milosevic.

For better or worse, one result of our standing is that people around the world think the U.S. is both the cause of, and answer to, their concerns.

I am proud that America is, more often than not, the solution rather than the problem. I am also proud of our generosity. Like your tradition of Zakat, we feel a moral obligation to share our good fortune. Every year, we send tens of billions of dollars far from our shores to help the impoverished... support economic development... combat AIDS. We should do more. We already do a lot. But it is also true that in the Middle East and North Africa, repressive political systems and closed economies generate deep anger, resentment, and extremism. I know that the United States has seemed, at best, indifferent to the plight of the oppressed and, at worst, complicit with corrupt and autocratic regimes – despite our generosity.

In the past, we’ve justified that support in different ways: the Cold War struggle against communism... the preference for stability over chaos...the need to ensure a steady supply of oil. The tragedy of 9-11 has taught America the hard way that we cannot afford such policies. As President Bush said recently: “stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.”

Americans of all political persuasions agree that our security requires us to more actively support your aspirations to choose your own leaders... to express your own opinions...to associate freely with others... to worship in peace... to be treated with dignity. In a word, our security requires us to more actively support your desire for liberal democracy. That is the right thing to do. And it is the surest path to realizing your potential and your dreams. Democracy is first and foremost about preventing the concentration of power into the hands of the few... or the one. Elections are necessary – but not enough. Democracy is about creating individual rights and building independent institutions: courts of law, political parties, a free press, transparent government, property ownership, a private sector, non-governmental organizations. It is about schools that teach tolerance to your children, and teach them to think for themselves. It is about making women genuine partners in building a modern society.

Nothing about democracy is incompatible with Islam. For example, since the days of the Prophet, the shura – a council where community leaders gather to make decisions through discussion – has been a Muslim concept.

I know many resist change because of the uncertainty it brings. I understand the tension people feel between holding on to traditions that are comfortable and embracing modernity. In my own country, people contend with that tension every day. For example, free trade means that Americans have more choice and pay less for the many things in our stores. But it also means American jobs are lost to countries where people are willing to work for lower pay. That has made millions of Americans – despite our prosperity – angry and afraid.

So each of us, in different ways, has to contend with powerful forces of change and the uncertainty they bring. Every nation must find its own way. Let me share with you, in all humility, the path my country has chosen and some lessons we have learned.

Many see the economic, cultural and military power of the United States. What they may not understand is that those strengths flow from our democratic system, not the other way around. They flow from the freedom we afford every American to think, to question and to create. There are other paths to prosperity. South Korea once enjoyed extraordinary growth without democracy. Now, so does China. But I am convinced that in the long run, the freedoms we enjoy are a tremendous advantage in competing with other countries in the information age.

Our strength also flows from the great diversity of our people. More than two centuries ago, our founders recognized that America’s enduring mission would be “to form a more perfect union”. In other words, they understood the challenge of forging a single nation from many different parts. But they were confident that in working to overcome our differences, Americans would constantly move forward.

They were right. My country was born in the midst of slavery; we still struggle to overcome the legacy of racism. But we can also say that African Americans have made great strides and are making great contributions to our society.

The rights we enjoy and the institutions we built give every American the power to shine a light on the mistakes we make, and to demand that they be corrected. And the rules we live by protect us from the excess of absolute power... and have helped us build a country where each individual has the opportunity, but not the guarantee, to achieve his or her potential.

Please do not misunderstand me. I mean no disrespect. But the nations of the Arab world could be doing so much more to harness the enormous potential of their people.

Consider this: the combined gross domestic product of all Arab countries in 1999 was less than that of a single European country – Spain. Think about that for a moment. And then think back a thousand years. Spain was part of a great Arab empire which encompassed most of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Why did you thrive then? It was not your armies alone. It was your ideas, your civilization, your culture, your openness. Why has this one small territory – then called Al Andalus, now called Spain – outpaced the rest of the Arab world combined today?

Don’t take the answer from me. Listen to the leading Arab scholars who recently completed a remarkable study of Arab Human Development, published by the United Nations. It speaks to the need across the Arab world to make progress in three critical areas: Empowering women, spreading knowledge, and expanding freedom. This is an incredibly difficult challenge – but also an extraordinary opportunity. 70% of your population is below the age of 30. Unlocking their minds and unleashing their talents can be a deep source of strength. Bringing women into the work place will boost your economies... just as women leaders past and present in Pakistan... in Bangladesh... in Turkey... and in Indonesia energized the Muslim world’s politics. Giving your people access to the internet will connect them to a vast supply of knowledge and power your progress.

The United States wants to help you seize these opportunities in a spirit of cooperation. We are ready to share our experiences... to make investments in your economies... to welcome you into the international community. We are prepared to build these partnerships because it is on our interest.

It is up to you to take the necessary, important, unavoidable risks. The choice is yours. You can merely survive, with an economy that generates just enough wealth to get by and a society that provides few freedoms and opportunities.

Or you can thrive. I am convinced you can thrive. My conviction follows from your history. At a time when Europeans were barely emerging from the Dark Ages, the light of civilization was shining brightly in the Arab world. Scholars outpaced their European counterparts in math, science and other disciplines of modernity. Philosophers and poets, architects and artists enlightened the world from Cairo to Baghdad to Damascus to Granada.

I believe with all my heart that you can build a future as glorious as your past. And I am convinced that my country has a profound stake in your success.

Let me leave you with the words of a great Arab-American poet, Gibran Khalil Gibran, that speak powerfully to this time and this challenge: “O land veiled to our sight from ages past.

Which way to you? Which path? How long? How wide? What wasteland hems you in? What mountain range Enfolds your realm? Which one of us the guide? Are you our hope? Or are you a mirage? In hearts where none but fruitless quests reside...

“O source of knowledge where our forbears dwelt, Where truth they worshiped, beauty was their creed; Uncharted source, unknown, unreachable Whether by crested wave or racing steed, Neither in East nor West can you be found, In southern reaches nor in northern field, Not in the skies we find you, nor the seas, Nor pathless deserts which beguile our art; Deep in the soul you burst, like light, like fire, You are within my chest, my pounding heart.”

Thank you for listening.