The possibility that former NATO supreme commander Wesley Clark might enter the race for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination has been the subject of furious speculation in the media. But while recent coverage of Clark often claims that he opposed the war with Iraq, the various opinions he has expressed on the issue suggest the media’s “anti-war” label is inaccurate.
Many media accounts state that Clark, who led the 1999 NATO campaign against Yugoslavia, was outspoken in his opposition to the invasion of Iraq. The Boston Globe (9/14/03) noted that Clark is “a former NATO commander who also happens to have opposed the Iraq war.” “Face it: The only anti-war candidate America is ever going to elect is one who is a four-star general,” wrote Michael Wolff in New York magazine (9/22/03). Salon.com called Clark a “fervent critic of the war with Iraq” (9/5/03).
To some political reporters, Clark’s supposed anti-war stance could spell trouble for some of the other candidates. According to Newsweek‘s Howard Fineman (9/8/03) Clark “is as anti-war as Dean,” suggesting that the general would therefore be a “credible alternative” to a candidate whom “many Democrats” think “would lead to a disaster.” A September 15 Associated Press report claimed that Clark “has been critical of the Iraq war and Bush’s postwar efforts, positions that would put him alongside announced candidates Howard Dean, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio as the most vocal anti-war candidates.” The Washington Post (9/11/03) reported that Clark and Dean “both opposed the war in Iraq, and both are generating excitement on the Internet and with grass-roots activists.”
Hearing Clark talking to CNN‘s Paula Zahn (7/16/03), it would be understandable to think he was an opponent of the war. “From the beginning, I have had my doubts about this mission, Paula,” he said. “And I have shared them previously on CNN.” But a review of his statements before, during and after the war reveals that Clark has taken a range of positions– from expressing doubts about diplomatic and military strategies early on, to celebrating the U.S. “victory” in a column declaring that George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair “should be proud of their resolve in the face of so much doubt” (London Times, 4/10/03).
Months before the invasion, Clark’s opinion piece in Time magazine (10/14/02) was aptly headlined “Let’s Wait to Attack,” a counter-argument to another piece headlined “No, Let’s Not Waste Any Time.” Before the war, Clark was concerned that the U.S. had an insufficient number of troops, a faulty battle strategy and a lack of international support.
As time wore on, Clark’s reservations seemed to give way. Clark explained on CNN (1/21/03) that if he had been in charge, “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.” As he later elaborated (CNN, 2/5/03): “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.”
On the question of Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, Clark seemed remarkably confident of their existence. Clark told CNN‘s Miles O’Brien that Saddam Hussein “does have weapons of mass destruction.” When O’Brien asked, “And you could say that categorically?” Clark was resolute: “Absolutely” (1/18/03). When CNN‘s Zahn (4/2/03) asked if he had any doubts about finding the weapons, Clark responded: “I think they will be found. There’s so much intelligence on this.”
After the fall of Baghdad, any remaining qualms Clark had about the wisdom of the war seemed to evaporate. “Liberation is at hand. Liberation– the powerful balm that justifies painful sacrifice, erases lingering doubt and reinforces bold actions,” Clark wrote in a London Times column (4/10/03). “Already the scent of victory is in the air.” Though he had been critical of Pentagon tactics, Clark was exuberant about the results of “a lean plan, using only about a third of the ground combat power of the Gulf War. If the alternative to attacking in March with the equivalent of four divisions was to wait until late April to attack with five, they certainly made the right call.”
Clark made bold predictions about the effect the war would have on the region: “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.” George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair “should be proud of their resolve in the face of so much doubt,” Clark explained. “Their opponents, those who questioned the necessity or wisdom of the operation, are temporarily silent, but probably unconvinced.” The way Clark speaks of the “opponents” having been silenced is instructive, since he presumably does not include himself– obviously not “temporarily silent”– in that category. Clark closed the piece with visions of victory celebrations here at home: “Let’s have those parades on the Mall and down Constitution Avenue.”
In another column the next day (London Times, 4/11/03), Clark summed up the lessons of the war this way: “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.”
Another “plain fact” is this: While political reporters might welcome Clark’s entry into the campaign, to label a candidate with such views “anti-war” is to render the term meaningless.