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.
Time magazine, 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?”
CNN, January 21, 2003: Anchor Leon Harris says to Clark that it has been “widely talked about that you want to be president” and asks him to pretend he is president for the purpose of discussion.
Harris: “You’re being ambushed in the UN Security Council. Support there is waning. . . . What is the next step? What do you do now?”
Clark: “Well, Leon, if I had been in that position [the presidency], I probably wouldn’t have made the moves that got us to this point. But just assuming that we’re here at this point, then I think that the president is going to have to move ahead, despite the fact that the allies have reservations.”
Harris: “You mean move ahead unilaterally?”
Clark: “With whatever coalition we can establish.”
London Times, April 10, Clark article after the fall of Baghdad: Can anything be more moving than the joyous throngs swarming the streets of Baghdad? Memories of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the defeat of Milosevic in Belgrade flood back. . . . Liberation is at hand. Liberation—the powerful balm that justifies painful sacrifice, erases lingering doubt and reinforces bold actions. . . . Surely the balm of military success will impact on the diplomacy to come—effective power so clearly displayed always shocks and stuns. Many Gulf States will hustle to praise their liberation from a sense of insecurity they were previously loath even to express. Egypt and Saudi Arabia will move slightly but perceptibly towards Western standards of human rights. . . . But remember, this was all about weapons of mass destruction. They haven’t yet been found. It was to continue the struggle against terror, bring democracy to Iraq, and create change, positive change, in the Middle East. And none of that is begun, much less completed.”
London Times, April 11, Clark column about the modern advances in weaponry and training: “The campaign in Iraq illustrates the continuing progress of military technology and tactics, but if there is a single overriding lesson it must be this: American military power, especially when buttressed by Britain’s, is virtually unchallengeable today. Take us on? Don’t try! And that’s not hubris, it’s just plain fact.”
CNN, July 16, Clark talks with Paula Zahn:
Zahn: “You are considering a run for president. If you were president tonight, what would you be doing differently that would make these U.S. troops feel any more secure in this very dangerous environment?”
Clark: ” . . . Paula, we have got to recognize the truth about this mission. We’re in there without the kind of legitimacy we need. We need top cover. We need top cover from the UN. And we need to get other international-based forces in with us to help carry the burden that we’re shouldering almost alone in Iraq.”
Zahn: ” . . . how much of what you shared with us tonight is colored by the fact that you could be running for president of the United States down the road?”
Clark: “Well, actually, I’ll be very honest with you. None if it is colored by that. . . . From the beginning, I have had my doubts about this mission, Paula. . . . I never could connect the dots between the fact that Saddam Hussein was a bad guy and had aspirations for weapons of mass destruction with the urgency of putting U.S. troops in there in that mission. There was a hunger in some quarters to go after this fight. It was as though using force was a reward in itself, that by putting our forces in there and showing our power, we would somehow solve our problems in the international environment. And I think the opposite is the truth. I think you should use force only as a last resort.”
I will cite only one of the puzzles that struck me in all this verbiage. If Clark had major reservations “from the beginning” about putting troops in Iraq, what are we to make of his praise for Bush and Blair on April 10 for their “resolve” in sticking to their guns?
We know the general is a very bright man; even his critics volunteer that. But there’s no getting around that he’s been all over the lot on the critical issue of this war. The friendliest interpretation one can give to his performance is that he has been doing his thinking out loud, in public, on television—when he should be sequestering himself until his vision on any particular subject is well formed and he is comfortable with it.
One hopes he pulls his act together so we can get a valid feel for him. In the past, military figures have become some of this country’s best-remembered wise men, starting with George Washington. People my age remember Dwight Eisenhower, George Marshall, and Omar Bradley. Men who have sent other men into battle and written letters to the families of the fallen are often less likely than macho but battle-innocent civilian leaders to be careless or superficial in weighing decisions about war. They’ve already seen enough suffering and spilled blood.
There’s no way of telling at this point whether Wesley Clark might have the stuff to be one of those infrequent wise men. We may never find out. Modern political campaigns are about television and stagecraft, with both having the power to cloud voters’ minds.
Maybe the lesson to be gleaned from the scrutiny that Clark and his ever shifting Iraq statements are receiving now is also about television. The medium demands from its talking heads an instant opinion about everything, and that can make a fool of anyone.
Research: Michael Anstendig
“Can Progressives Love Wesley Clark?” By Richard Goldstein
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 23, 2003