Give Wesley Clark his due: he looks great on paper. First in his class at Westpoint, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, victor in Kosovo, architect of Dayton, Rhodes Scholar. Not bad. What’s more, less than a week after declaring for president, Clark is running stronger than anyone could have predicted. A Newsweek poll puts him top of the Democratic field, meaning he’s already leapfrogged Howard Dean, the most formidable Democratic contender until now. The Democratic party is making nice with Clark, reinforcing the notion that the general, unlike the lightweight Dean, can beat Bush on national security. As New York magazine recently put it, “the only antiwar candidate America is ever going to elect is one who is a four-star general.”
But it’s beginning to seem as though the “white knight” has some chinks in his armor, and that he might even be vulnerable where he seemed strongest.
Clark’s greatest asset, notes London’s Observer, can be summed up in one word: “General.”
“For half a century the Republicans have pounded the Democrats for being soft on national security. Clark, like a white knight on a charger, can finally slay that dragon. It says much about America that the only sort of anti-war candidate with a chance of being elected is a four-star General, and Clark is that man. Cut him and he bleeds the army. He fought in one war and led Nato in another. But he opposed invading Iraq and, unlike many other Democrat candidates, he did it from the beginning.”
Or did he?
Lately Clark has been a strong critic of the Bush administration’s war in Iraq, as in this quote from the New York Times:
“‘It’s important to ask why the administration set the timeline in such a manner that they were unable to wait for an international coalition to emerge and work together,’ he said. ‘And why is it that they failed to plan adequately for the postwar task? Certainly the officers in uniform understood very well the difficulties and what could happen afterward. Why is it that the administration didn’t want those difficulties aired?'”
But last week Clark seemed a lot less sure of his ground. On Thursday he stunned his supporters by telling the Times that he would have voted for war:
“‘At the time, I probably would have voted for it, but I think that’s too simple a question,’ General Clark said.
A moment later, he said: ‘I don’t know if I would have or not. I’ve said it both ways because when you get into this, what happens is you have to put yourself in a position — on balance, I probably would have voted for it.'”
The following day, Clark stammered — revealing that this general can also wear a politican’s suit and tie:
“I never would have voted for war … What I would have voted for is leverage. Leverage for the United States to avoid a war. That’s what we needed to avoid a war.”
Some see Clark’s flip-flop as part of a larger pattern of backpeddling. Here’s Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, a media watchdog:
“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).
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.”
What to make of this? Here’s a possible clue, from an online discussion between Washington Post military reporter, Vernon Loeb, and Post readers, one of whom asked:
“From what I remember of Clark’s appearances on TV before and during the war, he seemed to mask whether he supported the war or not. One minute he was applauding the liberation of the Iraqi people, and the next he was saying we should have done it with more allies. But then he said that if the UN wouldn’t pass a resolution, we should find a coalition of the willing to take down Saddam. What gives? Did he support the war or not?”
“Well, you’ve put your finger on what I would call the Clark problem. Saying different things to different people, sometimes different things to the same people. His critics in the military chide him for just such double-speak, and say this is one reason why people tend not to trust him. On the other hand, there are those who trust him totally, and say Clark is very loyal to people and greatly respects people of comptence…. He is a very complex guy, but sometimes complex doesn’t wear well on the campaign trial, when complex appears to be confusing and a bit manipulative. But you’ve asked THE question about his candidacy.”
Clark’s contradictions extend beyond what he’s said to what he’s done. Though he’s gone on record criticizing Bush for not taking multilateral approach in Iraq, as The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel notes, Clark has in the past shown quite another side — that of a reckless leader with a go-at-it-alone attitude:
“On June 12, 1999, in the immediate aftermath of NATO’s air war against Yugoslavia, a small contingent of Russian troops dashed to occupy the Pristina airfield in Kosovo. Clark was so anxious to stop the Russians that he ordered an airborne assault to confront these units–an order which could have unleashed the most frightening showdown with Moscow since the end of the Cold War. Hyperbole? You can decide. But British General Michael Jackson, the three-star general and commander of K-FOR, the international force organized and commanded by NATO to enforce an agreement in Kosovo, told Clark: “Sir, I’m not starting world war three for you,” when refusing to accept his order to prevent Russian forces from taking over the airport. (Jackson was rightly worried that any precipitous NATO action could risk a confrontation with a nuclear- armed Russia and upset the NATO-led peacekeeping plan just getting underway with the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo.)
After being rebuffed by Jackson, Clark, according to various media reports at the time, then ordered Admiral James Ellis, the American in charge of NATO’s southern command, to use Apache helicopters to occupy the airfield.
… In the end, Russian reinforcements were stopped when Washington persuaded Hungary, a new NATO member, to refuse to allow Russian aircraft to fly over its territory.”
So he’s a complex guy, with a complicated history. That, on its own, isn’t a deal-breaker. But Clark has gone very quickly from the perfect Democratic candidate to a potential liability. He’s riding high in the polls, for now. Whether he stays up there will depend on how quickly he gets his campaign game on track and his story straight. But, on current evidence, the more the public learns more about Clark’s background, the less willing it will be to give him the benefit of the doubt. For now, let’s just say he’s “complex,” and contradictory. Then again, there’s always the possibility that he’s just plain confused. After all, he’s a Democrat who voted for both Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.