Clark's Changing Tune on Iraq

General Wobbled and Weaved as His Candidacy Neared

Wesley K. Clark, The Retired General who has just tossed his four stars into the presidential wrestling ring, has one of the most brilliant leadership résumés a mother or a political party could hope for. First in his class at West Point. Rhodes Scholar. Wounded on a jungle mission in Vietnam. NATO supreme commander, victor over the ethnic-cleansing Serbs in Kosovo. And that's only a taste of it.

From this picture of a bold commander with a keen intellect, one might expect to find his views on the Iraq war to be clear minded and unambiguous. That is not the case. A search through the transcripts of his war commentaries on CNN and his opinion columns in the print press finds instead that he wobbled and weaved.

He said one thing in Time magazine and something quite different in The Times of London. In his CNN analyst role, he said on several occasions that Saddam Hussein "absolutely" possessed weapons of mass destruction but then said last week, no such weapons having yet been found, that "there was no imminent threat" to justify a war against Iraq. While those two statements are not automatically incompatible, they suggest confusion or worse.

In April, when the Baghdad regime succumbed quickly to the American-British invasion force, Clark exuberantly compared it to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Writing in the London Times, he said: "President Bush and Tony Blair should be proud of their resolve in the face of so much doubt." By August, though, he was telling CNN's Aaron Brown: "The simple truth is that we went into Iraq on the basis of some intuition, some fear, and some exaggerated rhetoric and some very, very scanty evidence . . . that's a classic presidential-level misjudgment. And I think the voters have to be aware of that."

Though the 58-year-old Clark may have announced his pursuit of the American presidency only last week, it would surprise no one familiar with his rising-star history and his vaulting ambition if he were to confide to us now that the Oval Office has been on his mind for quite some time.

It was certainly unofficially out in the open all of this past year, when the retired general was doing military analysis on CNN and began offering criticisms of the Bush White House's unilateral rush toward war with Iraq, and of its lack of serious preparation for the mop-up and nation building that would be urgently needed after certain victory.

Obviously, the Iraq issue looms large in this election. So does the question of whether President Bush and his inner circle knowingly engaged in distortions or used discredited intelligence and outright lies to talk Congress and the American public into the war against Saddam Hussein.

In fact, over the past several days, the national political press corps has pointed the credibility-gap issue at Clark as well, questioning him about the inconsistencies in his statements on the war. He was clearly taken off stride, and as this paper went to press, much lack of clarity lingered. The particular issue this time was: Had Clark been a member of Congress, would he have voted for the resolution that authorized the president to attack Iraq? On the day of his candidacy announcement, Clark said he "probably" would have. A day later, he made a U-turn and said no, "I would never have voted for this war. . . . There was no imminent threat. This was not a case of preemptive war. I would have voted for the right kind of leverage to get a diplomatic solution, an international solution to the challenge of Saddam Hussein."

Indeed, Clark has said a wide range of things about Iraq, things that seemed to morph and change over the many months of the run-up to the war and since. These disparities could merely be the evolving thoughts of a man trying to piece together a coherent picture. Or maybe he was trying to fashion a policy position for his candidacy and behaving like a politician who swings with every shift in the wind. Or maybe both.

In any case, since Clark's strength lies in the contrast between his conduct and credentials and those of George Bush, he will need to quickly dispel any whiff that he, too—like Bush—plays games with the truth.

It's worth one's while to walk through a sampling of Clark's statements and writings about Iraq. I must note that it was the website of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (fair.org) that brought this sampler to my attention, in particular a valuable article by FAIR's Peter Hart posted on September 16, the day before the general declared his candidacy.


Timemagazine, Clark opinion piece, October 14, 2002: "President Bush was right to carry the problem of Iraq to the United Nations. And he is right to stay with the diplomatic process, as we seek to sway international opinion to our side. . . . Moreover . . . we must do everything possible to prepare for some unpleasant possibilities. . . . After Saddam's government collapses, are we prepared to maintain order and prevent mayhem? Wouldn't we be wiser to arrange for police support from other nations and international organizations? And if, as a result of conflict, Iraq's economy collapses, wouldn't we like to have international organizations ready to assist in nation building?"

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