Clark's Run Still Clouded

Why Didn't He Warn Us About War in Iraq?

Clark is hardly the only candidate saddled with inconsistencies between old and new positions. Kerry, for one, voted for the Bush war resolution on Iraq, and now he speaks vehemently against the war. So he too has explaining to do as long as his military résumé and his record on national security are part of his campaign platform.

For comparison purposes only, the last career military person to serve as president was five-star general Dwight D. Eisenhower, who led Allied troops to victory in Europe in World War II. But, unlike Clark and the internecine catfight he faces, Eisenhower was virtually handed his nomination by the Republican Party in 1952. Television was an embryonic thing then. Campaigns were not completely about image. That was a different time.

The "all-in-one vote": General Wesley Clark
photo: Cary Conover
The "all-in-one vote": General Wesley Clark

The general has lately been in New Hampshire competing against such rivals as North Carolina senator John Edwards, who was in his junior year in college when the American military role in Vietnam ended; Howard Dean, former Vermont governor and physician who avoided Vietnam through a medical deferment; and Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, who was wounded and decorated in Vietnam, returned disillusioned, and became a fiery advocate against the war.

General Clark—who also was wounded and decorated in Vietnam and closed out his four-star military career as NATO supreme commander (with a victory in 1999 over the Serb ethnic cleansers in Kosovo)—is most focused on Kerry because the Massachusetts senator has the only war record and national security credentials to challenge his own. And Kerry emerged the winner last week in the Iowa presidential caucuses, the first of the 2004 presidential season.

Clark, having entered the race late, opted not to compete in Iowa so as to concentrate on the New Hampshire primary, which takes place just as this paper is going to press on Tuesday, January 27. You'll know the results by the time you read this, so there'll be no foolhardy predictions from this corner.

As soon as Clark saw the Iowa returns, he zeroed in first on surprise winner Kerry. To Bob Dole on CNN: "Senator, with all due respect, he's a lieutenant and I'm a general."

At a press conference in Manchester, New Hampshire, that same night, when asked about Kerry's military record, the general said: "It's one thing to be a hero as a junior officer. He's done that, and I respect him for that. He's been a good senator. But I've had the military leadership at the top as well as the bottom. . . . Nobody in this race has got the kind of background I've got."

By the next day, he had softened his language somewhat but the point was the same. "I'm not trying to draw a distinction between my rank and Senator Kerry's [but] we need a leader who's been on the front lines of battle and in the back rooms of diplomacy." As NATO commander, he has often pointed out, in order to forge agreements, he had to deal with not only the Pentagon and the White House but the civilian and military leaders of the European countries.

By midweek, Clark was grouping Iowa runner-up John Edwards with Kerry in his target equation, saying that he possessed all of Kerry's and Southerner Edwards's qualifications—and then some. "People in Iowa," he told a veterans' campaign rally in New Hampshire, "were looking for someone who knew national security affairs. They were looking for someone who could go toe-to-toe with the president—a veteran. They were looking for someone who could campaign across the country and carry the South." (Clark is from Arkansas.) The Iowans, he went on, "split their votes. I am that package, all-in-one vote."

Clark's patriotic themes are of course also intended to suggest that he is the most elect-able candidate against President Bush, whose military record was brief. He served for a time in the Air National Guard here at home as a weekend pilot—though now he chooses to wear military gear fairly frequently at ceremonies and photo ops with soldiers.

In some respects, given their clashing biographies, Clark might seem the most electable of the Democrats seeking to evict Bush from the White House.

Bush's central campaign hologram is the civilian president who rose up after 9-11 and led the country into war against "the axis of evil" in Afghanistan and Iraq. After two years of American combat followed by the expected victories, both countries are struggling to produce a peaceful result. In Afghanistan, security exists only in the capital, Kabul, with warlords and Islamic extremists essentially ruling the outer regions. In Iraq, the American occupation has had mixed results, including tenuous security. Military and civilian casualties continue to rise.

Clark, on the other hand, has known only success in his 34 years as a soldier, getting high marks both in the classroom and as a field commander. He was first in his class at West Point, then became a Rhodes scholar. Recently, he testified as a prosecution witness at Milosevic's war-crimes trial before a United Nations tribunal in the Hague.

Last month, as the general walked through the crowd after a town hall meeting in Derry, New Hampshire, he was asked how he would respond if anyone criticized his loyalty or military record.

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