JANUARY 19, 2004
Well before he officially launched his candidacy in mid-September, Wesley Clark was hailed as the Democrats' savior. Party strategists, convinced that the front-running Howard Dean would flame out against George W. Bush, saw in Clark not only a sensible political alternative but, just as important, an electable one. Clark's 34 years in the Army--which included a heroic tour in Vietnam and culminated in four stars--and his public criticism of the Iraq war had made him a darling among centrist liberals who saw a bemedaled general as the perfect antidote to the GOP's national security dominance.
And, in the three-plus months since he entered the fray (indeed, even before he entered the fray), those sup porters have been relentlessly plugging Clark's military credentials. A Zogby poll commissioned and touted by DraftWesleyClark. com shows the general beating all of his rivals in a "blind-bio" test, in which respondents were asked to rate the presidential candidates based only on nameless one-paragraph resums. (Clark's advertised him as "a four-star general, " "nato supreme commander," "first in his class at West Point," and "a Vietnam Veteran.") One of the campaign's TV ads in New Hampshire, which shows a young Clark receiving the Silver Star, recounts his valor in a 1970 battle: "The first bullet shattered his hand. The second and third hit his shoulder and leg. As he hit the jungle floor, he rallied the troops and directed the firefight." As the Chicago Tribune put it in a recent profile, "Clark is running on the hero myth." But all the talk about how Clark's biography makes him electable has overwhelmed the more important point: It would also make him a good president. In the last decade, the specter of genocide arose twice in the Balkans; both times, Clark was instrumental in beating it back despite tepid support among political and military elites. In Bosnia, in 1995, Clark fought to continue bombing Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic's forces--a move that forced their withdrawal from Sarajevo and enabled the Dayton peace process, which yielded a successful peacekeeping and reconstruction operation. And, in 1999, with the world sitting idly by as thousands of ethnic Albanians were slaughtered in Kosovo, Clark--by then nato's supreme allied commander of Europe--repeatedly bucked his Pentagon superiors and pushed for intervention. He then proceeded to hold together the fractious nato alliance through a 78-day air war that succeeded in stopping the atrocities and ultimately resulted in Milosevic standing trial for war crimes. More than just an asset for Clark's political campaign, this diplomatic and military experience provides the brains and the brawn behind a worldview that prioritizes threats to U.S. security without sacrificing humanitarian imperatives, that seeks to solve problems through negotiation but is bolstered with a proven willingness to use force. Unlike Democratic rivals who try to demonstrate their foreign policy bona fides by showcasing their Senate votes, the retired general has actually waged the "muscular multilateralism" that his opponents use as a catchphrase. For this reason, Clark is the best solution for a Democratic Party struggling to prove it can protect the United States from terrorists and weapons of mass destruction--not only because Americans will sleep better with a general, rather than a politician, in the Oval Office, but because they'll sleep safer. It's true that Clark's worldview appeared a little shaky 24 hours into his candidacy. Asked on September 18, 2003, if he would have voted for the October 2002 congressional resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, the ostensibly antiwar general equivocated: "At the time, I probably would have voted for it, but I think that's too simple a question. ... I don't know if I would have or not." That quote, combined with subsequent claims that he would never have voted for the resolution, led to a minor media frenzy, on which Clark's rivals were quick to capitalize. "He took six different positions on whether going to war was the right idea," Joe Lieberman charged at one debate. In truth, Clark's position was consistent, if poorly explained: He thought the threat of force was necessary to bring Saddam Hussein into compliance with U.N. resolutions, but he disapproved of the Bush administration's anemic diplomacy in late 2002 and early 2003. Had Clark been in Congress, he likely would have supported the alternative resolution sponsored by Joe Biden and Richard Lugar requiring the president to return to Congress before invading Iraq; following the failure of that alternative, he likely would have voted for the resolution that eventually passed, as Biden and Lugar themselves did. In any case, Clark's stance on the war resolution has less bearing on the fitness of his foreign policy than his stance on the war itself. And on this Clark has been perfectly clear: "Saddam Hussein did pose a national security challenge. There is no dispute about that. He was in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. If he didn't still have weapons of mass destruction, he was trying to acquire them. He remained hostile to his neighbors. But it was clear then, and it is even clearer today, that Saddam Hussein posed no imminent threat to the region or the world." In short, "We didn't have to do this operation. It was [an] elective war." On this point, Clark has been proved correct. Not only has no evidence been uncovered of an active Iraqi nuclear program or Saddam's alleged ties to Al Qaeda; there has been no sign of ongoing biological or chemical weapons programs, either. Oddly, this lack of evidence for the fundamental rationale for war has not changed the minds of many Democratic hawks, who consider support for the war a litmus test of foreign policy seriousness--even as they roundly criticize the president's conduct of foreign policy before, during, and after the war. Lieberman, defending his vote for the war resolution, has said, "It was time for decisiveness, which is what people expect in their president, not uncertainty and ambivalence." Perhaps so. But they also expect, or at least deserve, a measure of self-reflection. Maintaining a position in the face of overwhelming evidence that it was wrong is not decisive; it's delusional. Lieberman (and the Bush administration) now argues that the war was worthwhile because Saddam was a despicable tyrant who invaded two of his neighbors, used chemical weapons against the Kurds, and routinely brutalized his people. All of which is true. But the question was never whether the world would be better off without Saddam--of course it is. The question was whether the costs of ousting him outweighed the benefits. And, on that question, the jury is still out. After all, the costs have been significant: the lives of 483 American soldiers (as well as thousands of Iraqi civilians), $150 billion, an immeasurable loss of U.S. authority abroad, and the diversion of military and diplomatic resources from other threats. (Newsweek, noting that Special Forces units were pulled out of Afghanistan in early 2002 for redeployment to the Middle East, reported, "Privately, some U.S. officials acknowledge that the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq may have seriously drained away resources from the hunt for [Osama] bin Laden.") As Clark has argued, "The administration zeroed in on Iraq. But focusing on Iraq made no sense--if the real goal was to protect the United States either from weapons of mass destruction or terrorism. The hundred tons of loosely guarded nuclear-bomb- making material and bioweapons in Russia presents a far more tempting target for terrorists. But this administration has not made that a priority. The nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea were more advanced and more threatening than Iraq's, but for months they paid little attention. Their actions made no strategic sense; they downplayed the greater threats and exaggerated the lesser one." Despite its inherent logic, this critique seems lost on those Democratic candidates--Lieberman, Dick Gephardt, sometimes John Edwards and John Kerry-- competing with Clark for the mantle of top security dog. Lieberman, for example, has argued that American soldiers in Iraq "are now involved in a critical battle in the war on terrorism, because terrorists have come in there to strike at us and strike at the instruments of civilization." But this point--which the president also makes every time he calls Iraq the "central front" in the war on terrorism--is tautological. Clearly, if Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism, it is only because we made it so by invading the country. Other Democrats may consider themselves courageous for sticking with their support for a war whose chief rationale has evaporated, but far more valuable are Clark's common sense and his ability to prioritize dangers--a crucial ability for a commander-in-chief who will face a broad spectrum of threats with finite military, financial, and diplomatic resources. Clark does have one stain on his Iraq record: his refusal to support the president's request for $87 billion to rebuild Iraq and pay for the troops there, a position that is hard to see as anything other than a sop to antiwar Democrats eager to punish Bush in any way possible. Fortunately, it does not seem to be indicative of a desire on Clark's part to abandon Iraq. Quite the opposite. He has said that he could envision circumstances under which he would request more than $87 billion for Iraq operations, and he has acknowledged that we may need to deploy more American troops to the country in the short term. As he told reporters on September 18, 2003, "Now that we're there, I want the mission to succeed." Clark has also outlined a plan for the reconstruction of Iraq that calls for handing security over to nato and internationalizing the reconstruction. If these suggestions sound familiar, it's because they've been touted in one form or another by all the Democratic candidates. And, as many commentators have noted, the problem with those suggestions is that persuading countries opposed to the war to participate in its cleanup has proved exceedingly difficult. Ultimately, however, what makes Clark's multilateral approach feasible and sets it apart from his competitors' is less the approach itself than the fact that he would be the one implementing it. Clark, after all, essentially did in Europe what he says we ought to have done in Iraq--i.e., successfully wage a multilateral war such that it leaves us with allies committed to winning the peace. In Kosovo, each step of the air campaign--ranging from decisions about what planes would be used to the selection of targets--required the concurrence of the alliance's 19 member states. As a result, the war was a "maddening assignment" complicated "by political forces, such as hope that just a few strikes would compel Milosevic's surrender, thirst for a bombing pause, fear of civilian casualties, exaggerated fear of the Serbs' military capabilities, and the American military's reluctance to risk Apache helicopters," Clark writes in his memoir, Waging Modern War. And yet the general held the alliance together and forced Milosevic to back down. He was able to do so, he writes, not in spite of the strictures imposed by coalition warfare but because of them. When alliance leaders signed on to the mission, they became inextricably committed to its success: "[They] could not afford to fail. ... [T]heir own political survival was at stake." Extending this observation to today's war, Clark says, "If we had used nato to launch the war on terrorism, we would have had the military, moral, political, and financial commitment of nineteen nations including Turkey determined to make a success of the mission and determined to defend our actions to their people and the world." Clark's call to multilateralize the occupation is therefore not simply an amorphous criticism of the Bush administration's handling of postwar Iraq. It's a recommendation grounded in Clark's position at the vanguard of post-cold-war military operations and peacekeeping. (It doesn't hurt that he has worked closely with the Europeans, whose reluctance was a focal point of opposition to the Iraq war. Indeed, Clark has devoted an entire plank of his platform toward restoring relations with the Continent via a "new Atlantic charter.") Clark's multilateralism is pragmatic, not fetishistic. His foreign policy puts self-interest first while allowing for humanitarian interventions, emphasizes diplomacy and international institutions while reserving the right for unilateral action, and endorses the value of nonproliferation treaties while acknowledging their weaknesses. His take on the use of force is pitch- perfect: "We always have the right of self-defense, including inherently the right to strike pre-emptively," he writes. "But force must be used only as a last resort--and then multilaterally if possible." In these respects, Clark again stands out not so much for the uniqueness of his philosophy as for the fact that he has actually put it to use. While many of the Democratic presidential candidates might agree with the tenor of Clark's broad policy guidelines, it's not clear that they would be willing to back up the soft side of U.S. power with its harder edge. With Clark, on the other hand, there is little doubt. It was Clark, after all, who during the Bosnian war demanded--to the point of hectoring a furious superior officer--that bombing continue until Milosevic withdrew from Sarajevo. And it was Clark, together with a handful of Clinton officials, who pushed for military intervention in Kosovo when the Pentagon brass and many nato leaders preferred to do nothing. Clark, unlike his rivals, has actually led wars, not just voted for them. None of which is to say there are no differences between Clark's specific proposals and those of his rivals. In Iraq, Clark wants to transfer power to the people by allowing the 50 elected local councils already operating in the country to choose an interim government, "just as the state legislatures once elected members to our Senate." From the opening days of his campaign, Clark has been talking about the need to de-radicalize Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, countries Lieberman doesn't discuss in his major foreign policy addresses (even the Connecticut senator's recent National Interest piece on Islam fails to mention Pakistan and Saudi Arabia). He wants to hand over the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to the United Nations immediately, so that the 1,000-plus intelligence officers, linguists, and Special Forces now doing that job can be transferred to the hunt for bin Laden and Al Qaeda. He understands that we can use U.S. support for treaties--such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and an enforcement protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention--not only to enhance U.S. security but to restore ties with European capitals. And, while all the candidates have called for direct negotiations with Pyongyang to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program, Clark is the only one to observe, smartly, that the early decision to make China the multilateral talks' de facto arbiter, rather than to bring it to the table later, has left Washington owing Beijing a favor, rather than the other way around. Clark's experience, beyond grounding his robust foreign policy, will also insulate him from the Pentagon and Republican hostility that has consistently bedeviled Democratic presidents. Whereas President Clinton and his advisers often seemed intimidated by the military--James Carville, a former Marine corporal, likes to say he was the highest-ranking military official in the administration--Clark will have no trouble standing up to the four-stars. (If he was willing to do so when they were his superiors, he surely will be when they're his subordinates.) And the moral authority he will possess as commander- in-chief will make it harder for a GOP Congress to stymie a liberal internationalist agenda that emphasizes diplomacy and treaties as tools of U.S. security and sanctions military deployment for humanitarian purposes. Clark may also be able to persuade the antiwar left of the merits of a true muscular multilateralism--not least through his proposal for a New American Patriotism, which aims to restore the pride that Democrats, disaffected by the Bush administration's jingoism, feel toward the flag. In part, he plans to do this by encouraging the dissent on security issues that has been discouraged, implicitly and explicitly, by Republican leaders. On the stump, Clark of ten says, "There's nothing more American--nothing more patriotic--than speaking out, questioning authority, and holding your leaders accountable." Such declarations could ease the fears of an American public that, once bitten by the deception of the Iraq war, may be twice shy about future uses of military force. If the need arose, Americans would follow Wesley Clark into war. They should follow him to the White House first.
By J. Peter Scoblic