Clark Is Missing Chance to Shine

Posted October 29, 2003 at 3:35pm

Evidently stung by charges of indecisiveness, retired Gen. Wesley Clark is launching blunderbuss attacks on President Bush — including that the president bears responsibility for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In the process, Clark is missing the chance to capitalize on his strength as a military strategist. [IMGCAP(1)]

The instant Democratic frontrunner when he announced for president six weeks ago, Clark has faltered amid well-documented charges that he raised money for Republicans, praised Bush, thought about becoming a Republican and supported Bush’s war in Iraq before turning decisively against it.

The latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll shows Clark has slipped back into a tie with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean for the lead among Democrats nationally, at 15 percent each. More importantly, he is in fourth place with just 8 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, according to a Boston Globe poll.

Lately, Clark has been so critical of everything connected with Bush that one centrist Democrat said “he sounds like Howard Dean in a uniform.”

Actually, Clark is taking moderate positions on economic policy and health care. But he did come out against Bush’s $87 billion request to support U.S. troops in Iraq and has accused the administration of “depriving Americans of their civil liberties” and of accusing critics of being “disloyal and unpatriotic.”

On Tuesday, he broke new ground by charging that “there is no way this administration can walk away from its responsibilities for” the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“This wasn’t something that could be blamed on lower level intelligence officers,” he said in a speech to a foreign policy conference in Washington.

Referring to the famous sign on President Harry S. Truman’s desk — “The buck stops here” — Clark said that, for 9/11, “the buck rests with the commander in chief, George W. Bush.”

Clark came forward with no evidence that Bush ignored specific warnings of the terrorist attacks, but in a statement he demanded that Bush hand over records of August 2001 briefings from the CIA so far denied to the investigating commission headed by former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean (R).

Clark’s most often-repeated charge against Bush, however, is that he has “no clear definition of success” in Iraq, “no international mandate, no integrated political-military strategy to win the peace and no exit strategy.”

This is where Clark is missing a golden opportunity. Given his vast military experience, particularly as the NATO supreme allied commander who won the Kosovo war in 1999, it ought to be urgent business for Clark to bring forth a comprehensive plan of his own for Iraq.

It would distinguish him from his Democratic rivals, maximize his comparative advantage as an expert in military strategy — and give his campaign a major boost.

If it were coherent and compelling enough, it might affect public attitudes on Bush’s policy and establish Clark as the Democrat most able to battle Bush on the Iraq issue.

Clark is scheduled to deliver a major foreign policy address Nov. 6 in South Carolina. It’s his opportunity to lay out a full Clark plan for Iraq and, possibly, a broader Clark Doctrine for foreign policy.

As Clark said in his speech to the Washington foreign policy conference, the United States needs “a strategy to fill the void that emerged at the end of the Cold War” comparable to “the Truman Doctrine, deterrence, containment and the Marshall Plan. Going forward, we’ll need new labels and new ideas.”

Maybe it’s too much to expect, but Clark conceivably could transform the presidential race if he were to come forward with a clear doctrine to compete with the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive war against terrorism.

Suggestions in Clark’s speeches and his new book, “Winning Modern Wars,” are that his main idea is to act on every problem of U.S. foreign policy only in concert with some international organization.

This would certainly reverse Bush’s “unilateralism” and might make the United States better liked around the world, but it would also subject U.S. action to a veto by countries that don’t always share America’s interests, such as France, Russia and China.

At Tuesday’s conference, the launching event for a new liberal think tank, the Center for American Progress, Clark suggested that, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, instead of going to war unilaterally in Afghanistan, the United States “should have immediately gone to the United Nations, developed a legal definition of terrorism — and indicted Osama bin Laden.”

“Action at the U.N. could have been enforced by NATO,” he said. Instead, “the U.S. ignored [NATO’s] unprecedented offer of help. One Pentagon official told me, ‘We read your book on Kosovo. We’re not going to let anyone tell us where to bomb.’”

Listening to the speech, one former Clinton administration official characterized Clark’s foreign policy as “learn to work and play well with others.”

The speech was dominated, however, by vituperative attacks against President Bush, alleging that Bush has “an election-driven, poll-driven, ideologically driven foreign policy” that has produced an “almost unbroken string of … failures.”

In contrast to Bush’s claim the same day that he would campaign for re-election arguing that “the world is more peaceful and more free under my leadership,” Clark charged that “today we are at risk — perhaps every bit as great as the risk we faced the day before 9/11.”

He said “our armed forces are fully committed as an array of new threats are emerging, with no reserves, either physical or intellectual” and “with this administration, there is no prospect of help from a world that increasingly revels in our failures.”

He said, “We have lost faith in our president. We have lost faith in his leadership. And the world has lost faith in our authority. … This administration’s reckless actions have depleted us of the national security asset we now need most: the moral authority we have enjoyed for most of our history.”

Clark promises that, when he is elected, “America will once again be a reliable international partner.” It will be good to be loved again, but Clark has to assure Americans that U.S. foreign policy won’t be dictated by Paris or Moscow.