Which of us is the biggest war hero? Which of us has lived the life of a real commander in chief?
Retired general Wesley Clark doesn’t use those specific words as he campaigns in a field of seven for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. But that is indeed his theme: That the other Democrats—and the president they want to oust—do have certain merits but none but him has the whole kit and caboodle to make a president for this perilous time. Again and again, he says to voters that he’s the real deal—because he has been a successful wartime leader (Kosovo) while also conducting fruitful international diplomacy (the Dayton Accords for Bosnia).
“To me,” he says at Legion halls and small-town diners, “patriotism is not dressing up in a flight suit and prancing on the deck of an aircraft carrier”—a clear reference to President Bush’s romp on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln last May. “I fought for this flag. I saw brave men and women buried under it. And no Tom DeLay, John Ashcroft, or George W. Bush is going to be able to take that flag away from this party and this country.”
General Clark does have an impressive résumé, and so far, that history and the quite credible duty-honor-flag stump speech has kept this political neophyte in the middle of an ever shifting pack of more seasoned presidential strivers. But a shadow trails his campaign, and it needs dealing with. It’s the question of how much he knew about the preparations for the U.S. attack on Iraq and why he didn’t alert the public to it.
Though he now repeats endlessly that he has “always been against President Bush’s war,” the record shows something else.
While he was a military analyst for CNN during the Afghanistan conflict and the run-up to the Iraq war, he told the public almost none of what he knew about the Bush administration having decided almost immediately after the 9-11 terrorist attack to lay the plans for invading Iraq. His criticisms—which are now full-blown accusations of misleading the nation into war by exaggerating the degree and imminence of Iraq’s threat to U.S. security—were then tentative and almost polite. On CNN and in congressional testimony, he said only that war should be a last resort and that there was still time for multinational diplomacy to work, rather than embarking on a seemingly headlong and risky unilateral course. He said nothing in any CNN commentary, or in articles he wrote occasionally in the press, about the evidence he had been given by former colleagues in the Pentagon right after 9-11 that the decision to proceed to war had already been made.
How do we know that Clark had evidence of full-scale war plans early after the 9-11 terrorist attacks? Because he told us so in his book Winning Modern Wars, published by PublicAffairs last September (a week after he announced his candidacy), in which he says unequivocally that he learned of the Bush war plans in just two months after 9-11. But neither in the book, nor in any forum since, has the general convincingly explained why he didn’t make the information public at the time, when it might have made a difference in the course of events. Would Congress, for example, had it known, so easily have passed Bush’s war resolution?
The nub of what the retired general knew right after 9-11 is on page 130 of the book: “As I went back through the Pentagon in November 2001, one of the senior military staff 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. . . . I left the Pentagon that afternoon deeply concerned.”
Elsewhere in the book, Clark calls the Bush plan “a policy blunder of significant proportions . . . [E]vidence and rhetoric were used selectively to justify the decision to attack Iraq. . . . [We] had re-energized Al Qaeda by attacking an Islamic state and presenting terrorists with ready access to vulnerable U.S. forces.”
The Voice disclosed all this in a lengthy article upon the book’s publication. More recently, the general declined to be interviewed for, or to comment on, this piece about his political campaign. Clark’s only explanation for his silence of nearly two years on these matters came in a Q&A session with reporters after a speech last October. First he said that his assignment at CNN was to comment on military matters, not policy issues. “There were other people [at CNN] who worked the policy piece,” he said. “And, um, that may sound like not much of a distinction to you, but for CNN it was significant.” But then he added: “Also, I kept hoping that what I heard [at the Pentagon] wasn’t true . . . I kept hoping wiser heads would prevail.” Hope is not much of a qualification for presidential decision-making.
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 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.
“I’ll beat the shit out of them,” Clark told the questioner, as C-SPAN caught it live on television.
No one is questioning Clark’s patriotism or his record of service. But reasonable people do think candid explanations are crucial to any candidate’s credibility—especially when a credibility gap is one of the major failings of the sitting president the Democrats are trying to unseat.