Wesley Clark, the retired four-star general who is one of 10 candidates for the Democratic nomination for president, has written a new book that is just arriving on bookstore shelves. Called Winning Modern Wars, it’s mostly about the Iraq war and terrorism—and it is laced with powerful new information that he held back from the public when he was a CNN military commentator during the Bush administration’s preparations for the war.
For example, he says he learned from military sources at the Pentagon in November 2001, just two months after the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, that serious planning for the war on Iraq had already begun and that, in addition to Iraq, the administration had drawn up a list of six other nations to be targeted over a period of five years.
Here’s what he writes on page 130:
“As I went back through the Pentagon in November 2001, one of the senior military staff officers had time for a chat. Yes, we were still on track for going against Iraq, he said. But there was more. This was being discussed as part of a five-year campaign plan, he said, and there were a total of seven countries, beginning with Iraq, then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia, and Sudan.” Clark adds, “I left the Pentagon that afternoon deeply concerned.”
He never disclosed anything like this information in any of his CNN commentaries or in the opinion columns he wrote for print media at the time. If Americans had known such things, and if the information is accurate, would they have supported the White House’s march to war? Would Congress have passed the war resolution the White House asked for?
On the next page of the book, 131, Clark writes: “And what about the real sources of terrorists—U.S. allies in the region like Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia? Wasn’t it the repressive policies of the first, and the corruption and poverty of the second, that were generating many of the angry young men who became terrorists? And what of the radical ideology and direct funding spewing from Saudi Arabia? Wasn’t that what was holding the radical Islamic movement together? . . . It seemed that we were being taken into a strategy more likely to make us the enemy—encouraging what could look like a ‘clash of civilizations’—not a good strategy for Winning the war on terror.”
These are very potent observations, coming from a military man with more than three decades of experience who is known for his intellectual candlepower. He was a leading commentator on television, chosen for his expertise in military strategy and geopolitics. Why didn’t he share these opinions with us then, when an informed public might have raised its voice and demanded more answers from the White House?
Was Clark being censored? Or was it self-censorship? In the introduction to Winning Modern Wars, he writes that while he is “protecting” his military sources by leaving them unidentified, “the public interest demands that some of this information be shared.” He adds, “Nothing in this book is derived from classified material nor have I written anything that could compromise national security.” Then why wait until now to serve “the public interest”? Was the general worried that if he had spoken earlier, in a jingoistic atmosphere, he would have been labeled unpatriotic? It’s an understandable concern.
Whatever his reasons, General Clark surely has some explaining to do now.
Maybe he has some valid explanations, such as that these views are conclusions that evolved over a period of time. But that’s not the way he writes it in the book.
Inconsistencies between old and new remarks are common topics in presidential elections—if that’s what these are. Inconsistencies aren’t mortal sins, just mortal imperfections. Reporters commit them. Anyone who publishes stuff commits them. Sometimes they happen because of changes in circumstances. Sometimes it’s plain old sloppy thinking. But the best way for the perpetrator to deal with them is to point them out as quickly as possible and explain them.
For a presidential candidate, the urgency is more intense, because if you let such problems hang around unattended to, the press will eventually discover them and, like rabid geese, nibble you to death.
Also, in this campaign especially, truth telling (or the lack of it) has become a big issue. The president and several lieges at his roundtable uttered so many distortions and exaggerations and untrue “facts” about why we had to go to war with Iraq that both President Bush and Vice President Cheney eventually had to come forward and admit they had “misspoken”—in particular about Iraq’s nuclear capabilities. They still haven’t acknowledged a lot of other misspeaks. Those running against this president would be well-advised not to fall into his errant ways.
Getting back to the Winning Modern Wars book, it is Clark’s second and a sequel of sorts to the first one, which had a similar title, Waging Modern War, and came out two years ago. Both are published by PublicAffairs. Waging was mostly about the successful 78-day air war in Kosovo in 1999, which Clark directed as NATO military chief (officially the supreme allied commander, Europe). Winning is a much slimmer book that reads like a campaign document. Clark knows people will perceive it that way and he denies any political motivation, saying in the introduction that he wrote it as a public duty, especially for the nation’s military men and women. “Offering this analysis,” he says, “is the least I can do to help them and to help my country.”
One must note, however, that by his own word in the book, he wrote it with considerable speed over the summer and was updating it as late as the first week in September. It started arriving in bookstores only a few days ago, one week after he announced his candidacy.
Also in the introduction, the general writes another commentary that he never gave on CNN:
“After 9/11, during the first months of the war on terror, a critical opportunity to nail Al Qaeda in Afghanistan was missed. Additionally, our allies were neglected and a counter-terrorist strategy was adopted that, despite all the rhetoric, focused the nation on a conventional attack on Iraq rather than a shadowy war against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks: Al Qaeda. I argue that not only did the Bush administration misunderstand the lessons of modern war, it made a policy blunder of significant proportions. . . . [E]vidence and rhetoric were used selectively to justify the decision to attack Iraq. . . . [W]e had re-energized Al Qaeda by attacking an Islamic state and presenting terrorists with ready access to vulnerable U.S. forces. It was the inevitable result of a flawed strategy.”
And on page 135, still another previously unspoken analysis: “And so, barely six months into the war on terror, the direction seemed set. The United States would strike, using its military superiority; it would enlarge the problem, using the strikes on 9/11 to address the larger Middle East concerns. . . and it would dissipate the huge outpouring of goodwill and sympathy it had received in September 2001 by going it largely alone, without the support of a formal alliance or full support from the United Nations. And just as the Bush administration suggested, [the conflict] could last for years.”
I think reasonable people would agree that GeneraI Clark has a campaign problem—namely, the differences between what he has said in the past about the war and the president, and what he’s saying now. Now he’s saying that George Bush took the country “recklessly” into war. He never used language like that as a commentator. In fact, in an April 10 column for the Times of London, just after the fall of Baghdad, he wrote, “President Bush and Tony Blair should be proud of their resolve in the face of so much doubt.”
Clark should probably talk to the public about these discrepancies as soon as he can. The issues for him are credibility and trust. Americans have grown cynical. They’ve listened to hurricanes of hot air over the years. Who knows? If a candidate were to start telling the unvarnished truth, they might freeze in their tracks and listen.