WASHINGTON, DC – House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) this evening delivered remarks at the International Republican Institute’s annual Freedom Award dinner on the importance of promoting freedom and democracy around the world. He highlighted Republicans' efforts to support America's allies and the world's freedom fighters, and the consequences of the Obama administration's lack of commitment to democracy.
Following are Boehner’s remarks, as prepared for delivery:
“Let me thank IRI and Sen. McCain for having me here tonight.
“Now I must admit, when I received your invitation, I thought you had the wrong guy. You see, one honoree tonight was a great Russian freedom fighter. One is considered to be among the 100 most influential people in the world. And the other is just the son of a bar owner from Southwest Ohio. As I tell people everywhere I go: this too can happen to you.
“Of all the things I thought I’d do with my life, running for office wasn’t high on the list. It wasn’t anywhere on the list, really. I was happy owning my own business. So when we started our campaign, we spent all our money trying to explain who I was. Then we got our first poll back. And I was only losing by about 82 points, give or take…
“Some 25 years later, I am the least likely person to receive this award. But I may be one of the most likely to understand what it means, which is that freedom makes anything possible.
“Now, as I thought about what I might say tonight, I realized I may have already said it. About four years ago, I gave a speech at the Heritage Foundation about the threat of Russian aggression. This was at the height of the ‘reset’ policy, and Putin wasn’t president again yet. But they had Garry Kasparov there, and I remember being criticized afterwards for arguing that Russia was attempting ‘to restore Soviet-style power.’ One writer even counted the number of times I used the word ‘Soviet,’ as if it were forbidden.
“That right there proves my point. We have to talk about these things, especially when they’re not trending or at the top of the headlines. Denial is dangerous, and silence can be fatal to liberty. The best thing that I can do – that we can all do, frankly – is give the stage to the true freedom fighters. That way, people can hear their stories, and be inspired to action.
“That’s why, as Speaker, my first meeting with a head of state was with the president of Georgia. Not long after that, I met with a group of opposition leaders from Belarus. In 2012, I visited Colombia to present its leaders with a copy of the new U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. In 2013, we renamed a space in the Capitol ‘Freedom Foyer’ and now have a bust of Havel there. Last year, we invited the President of Ukraine to address a joint meeting of Congress. Last January, one of my guests at the State of the Union was Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, a leader of the Cuban resistance movement
“And in June, I led a bipartisan delegation to Lithuania, a nation celebrating the 25th anniversary of its modern independence. There, we toured the Barricades and saw an original copy of their young Constitution. They took us out to see their new LNG terminal, fittingly named ‘Independence.’ And we met with the man they call their George Washington, who, as it turns out, is an excellent piano player.
“A generation ago, in his speech to the British Parliament, President Reagan called for a ‘crusade for freedom.’ Well this is it. It is happening. And this is why IRI is so important.
“Because freedom is a powerful idea, but even a great idea is not enough. We know you can’t just issue a declaration, and claim there’s freedom. You can’t just have an election, and call it a democracy. It all takes time and tremendous vigilance.
“It goes back to that old saying: showing up is 90 percent of life. You know why it’s an old saying? Because it’s true. When you show up, you show people that you care. IRI does this better than anyone, and I thank you for that.
“Yet I’m sure when President Reagan said those words, he envisioned that it would be the United States leading this crusade. But sadly, promoting democracy isn’t a cornerstone of our government’s current foreign policy. If anything, it is an afterthought.
“We see this, for example, in Iraq. When the White House had the chance to use its leverage to protect our progress and prevent the rise of ISIL, it did not act. Instead, the Iranian regime now exerts great influence over Iraq’s institutions. Except Iran has no interest in keeping Iraq whole and stable.
“We see this in Cuba. When our Secretary of State traveled to Havana to open our embassy, he had a great opportunity to highlight human rights problems. But not a single dissident – not a one – was invited to the ceremony. Something about ‘limited space.’ And yet, on the eve of that ceremony, dozens of dissidents were arrested.
“We see this in the irregular warfare against the legitimate government in Kiev. Instead of providing lethal aid to Ukraine, as members of both parties have urged, the president stated that Congress wanted to escalate the conflict. His response to our urging? He went out of his way to praise Putin for helping secure the Iran deal. I’ll say again what I said four years ago: cooperation can only be transactional to a point. We can never sacrifice – or even downplay – our values.
“But that’s exactly what we have done. Just look at the Iran deal. Not only does this deal make the world less safe – it makes the world less free. Long before we’ll ever know whether we prevented a nuclear Iran, we will be legitimizing a regime that jails journalists, tortures Americans it has unjustly imprisoned, and plots the annihilation of Israel, the only stable democracy in the region.
“My guiding principle has always been that you stand with your friends and confront your enemies. But in the foreign policy of this administration, we see a drift away from our allies – and our values – towards accommodation with the world’s aggressors.
“This is what happens when America doesn’t lead, when America doesn’t show up. The void gets filled by our enemies, while the world hears our president say – and I quote – ‘the United States has limits.’
“Just think about that for a second. America is the nation that gave the world the ‘can-do’ spirit. And now we’re defined by what we can’t do? There is always more we can do, and there’s plenty that the Congress is doing.
“We can promote economic freedom. That’s why we’ve acted to increase energy supplies to Europe. And it’s why we have enacted trade promotion authority to bring us closer to our allies and better compete with China.
“We can promote religious freedom. As ISIL has grown, so has the persecution of religious minorities. More than a year ago, Congress created the position of Special Envoy for Religious Minorities in the Middle East and South Central Asia, but the president still hasn’t filled it. He should appoint this envoy, and show this is a priority for the United States.
“We can also fight human trafficking. And we have now given law enforcement new tools to go after the perpetrators of these monstrous crimes.
“We can promote freedom in all of its forms. And so long as I am Speaker, this will be a first priority of the U.S. House of Representatives.
“Let me close with this. I’ve always found it interesting that on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was not content to recall old accomplishments. Instead, he proclaimed that ‘the blessings and security of self-government’ would one day belong to ‘the mass of mankind.’
“Ladies and gentlemen, America should never be a nation that thinks in terms of limits. Let us always think bigger and look beyond. The struggle may take longer than we hope, and more work than we plan, but we will get there. And I’ll always be honored to stand with you and do my part.
“Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.”