“The credibility of the United States is on the line, and Saddam Hussein has these weapons and so, you know, we’re going to go ahead and do this and the rest of the world’s got to get with us — The U.N. has got to come in and belly up to the bar on this. But the president of the United States has put his credibility on the line, too. And so this is the time that these nations around the world, and the United Nations, are going to have to look at this evidence and decide who they line up with.”
— Gen. Wesley Clark (Ret.), CNN, Feb. 5, 2003.
“We got a man who recklessly took us into war with Iraq.”
— Gen. Wesley Clark (Ret.), Democratic Presidential Debate, Sept. 25, 2003.
With the entry of retired Gen. Wesley Clark into the 2004 presidential race, it is easy to understand the exuberance that Democrats have elicited. Last week, Jonathan Menitove praised Clark as a political messiah, writing, “As a Democrat, he is an excellent candidate. As a liberal, he is a dream come true.” (“Wesley Clark: A liberal who can beat Bush,” 9/24). Clark is, after all, a military man, and with a commander in chief whose service to his country consists of going AWOL from his National Guard duty during Vietnam (in essence, a double draft-dodger), it will be difficult for President George W. Bush to criticize Clark on issues of national security. Yet Democrats viewing Clark as the panacea to a lackluster field of candidates are ignoring that on the most important issue in this race — where you stood on the Iraq crisis — Clark’s position has been anything but definitive.
Off the bat, Clark supporters act as if his being a general were de facto proof of his unassailability on issues of national security. This is simply not the case. Though the president is the commander in chief of the nation’s armed forces, he does not make any decisions without hearing first the various opinions of the military-security apparatus. Regularly advising the president are the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, the National Security Adviser and Council, not to mention the countless undersecretaries and generals. Voters should not so readily fall for the inevitable campaign commercials of Clark in full military regalia viewing the troops; his military background does not make his foreign policy (or lack thereof) more enlightened.
While Clark is making hay over his military record, his judgment as a leader of our armed forces is something that his potential supporters should ponder. In 1994, prior to serving as the NATO Supreme Allied Commander for Western Europe, Clark was a representative for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in war-torn Bosnia. There, against State Department advisories, Clark not only met, but jovially exchanged army caps and gifts of brandy and a firearm with Ratko Mladic, the notorious Serbian war criminal. According to the Washington Post, one U.S. official described the embarrassing incident as, “like cavorting with Hermann Goering.” Five years later, during the Kosovo war, Clark ordered the British Gen. Michael Jackson to intercept Russian forces as they made their way to Pristina airport. Jackson rightly replied, “Sir, I’m not going to start World War III for you.” Clark was ultimately fired from his position as Allied Commander, and few in our nation’s military brass consider him a friend.
But the real bone I have to pick with Wesley Clark lies in his stance on the war in Iraq. Earlier this year, Clark was hitting all the right notes; he was cognizant that Saddam Hussein either possessed weapons of mass destruction or was developing a weapons of mass destruction program that had to be halted by the use of force. But in trumpeting Clark as Howard Dean in fatigues, the mainstream media has aptly displayed its short-term memory. Suddenly, Clark has emerged as the “anti-war general.” Soon after he announced, the liberal media-watchdog group FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting) sent out a concise press release comparing Clark’s current statements on the war to the positions he took leading up to and during the conflict; two such comments are displayed above. In a Jan. 18 CNN interview, Clark said that Saddam, “does have weapons of mass destruction.” Same network, same issue, three months later, he said, “I think they will be found. There’s so much intelligence on this.” Only a few days after, in a column for the Times of London, Clark wrote that British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush, the man whom he just last week derided as “reckless,” “should be proud of their resolve in the face of so much doubt — Let’s have those parades on the Mall and down Constitution Avenue.” So far, so good.
Yet something has changed in Wesley Clark that now has him whistling an entirely different tune. On Sept. 19, Clark told the Associated Press, “Let’s make one thing real clear: I would never have voted for this war.” This unilateral declaration came only a day after Clark said he “probably” would have supported the resolution authorizing president Bush to declare war. Amazingly, last week, Menitove praised Clark for his “unequivocal style and consistency.” Yet Clark has been nothing but equivocal and inconsistent on the war.
Understandably, the candidate who has the most to fear from Clark is Howard Dean. Both men are trying to tap into the “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” faction of the Democratic Party. The latest Gallup poll indicates that Clark is in the lead, ahead of Dean by 9 points. Clark has fashioned himself into the perfect candidate for the Democratic party base, liberal on domestic issues and spouting the same foreign policy nonsense as Dean. But Clark wins out because he has the Purple Heart and Silver Star to ensure he doesn’t become the Walter Mondale of 2004.
I like Wesley Clark. I want to support him. The fact that he openly praised Ronald Reagan as “truly a great American leader” (albeit in a speech to a group of Republicans two years ago) is a positive sign for a bipartisan hawkish Democrat like me. But I only wish I could understand Clark’s views on the war. At least Dean has been loud and clear in his opposition.
Clark is not the white knight that Democrats are making him out to be, but rather an opportunist. Democrats had a candidate in Wesley Clark when he supported the enforcement of international law via the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s illegal regime. Though Clark is currently surging in the polls, his supporters are worried that he may not be able to make up for his late entry. They should be more worried about Clark’s inability to make up his mind.
James Kirchick is a sophomore in Pierson College.