Wesley Clark is a presidential candidate whose campaign rests on two rationales: his soldier’s biography and his opposition to the war in Iraq. His biography is still intact, but within 24 hours of entering the race, he had managed to turn the Iraq issue into his own personal exploding cigar.
For those of us who are generally skeptical about plunging into optional wars, that’s not the only reason to wonder if Clark offers a real alternative to the incumbent.
His pratfall came in an interview with The New York Times, when he was asked how he would have voted on the congressional resolution giving President Bush authority to invade Iraq. Clark hemmed and hawed, but finally ended up saying, twice, “I probably would have voted for it.”
This was not a question out of left field, on the order of asking him to name the president of Uzbekistan. In the months leading up to the war, Clark was a tireless presence on CNN, analyzing and criticizing the administration’s policy. He wrote several articles arguing that the president should use force only as a last resort and warning of the dangers of occupying postwar Iraq.
Given his expertise on the subject, Clark should have handled the question like Barry Bonds turning on a fastball down the middle. Instead, he finally had to call on his press secretary to explain his position. The following day, he announced, “I would never have voted for war.” Well, of course not, General. Who said you would have?
But there are other reasons to wonder about Clark’s instincts on sending the Marines to solve international problems. Even before the war, he sometimes came close to agreeing with the administration, as when he said that Saddam Hussein “should be held to his pledge to give up weapons of mass destruction, by force if necessary.” His criticisms were sometimes so carefully nuanced that they hit with all the impact of a damp sponge.
Worse, though, is that Clark had already shown himself to be just as eager as Bush to embark on martial adventures — just in different places, and for different reasons. While working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he urged U.S. intervention in Rwanda. That was too much even for Bill Clinton, a great believer in using the military for humanitarian causes.
But Clark’s chief claim to fame was commanding NATO forces in the war in Kosovo, where he proposed to send U.S. ground troops into a conflict that posed no earthly threat to important American interests. So eager was he to pursue his vision that at one point, he ordered a British general to move against an airfield occupied by Russian troops. Replied his subordinate, “I’m not going to start World War III for you.”
Most Americans remember the Kosovo war as a great victory, but the truth is not quite so glorious. The Clinton administration intervened on the assumption that Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic would beg for peace as soon as the first American bombs fell. In fact, he held out for 11 weeks, which was enough time for Serbian forces to carry out a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Brookings Institution scholar Ivo Daalder, a former Clinton national security aide, said the war had some unanticipated consequences:
“1.4 million people expelled, thousands murdered and raped, the expenditure of $10 billion plus, and the worsening of relations with China and Russia.”
The long-term results have not been anything to brag about either. The United States still has 2,500 troops in Kosovo, part of a peacekeeping force of 21,000. That’s not enough to make the people there get along any better than before.
Once the war was over, the majority Albanian Kosovars, whom we had intervened to protect, began taking vengeance on Serbs and other minorities. Soon, they had driven out more than a quarter of a million people, most of whom fled to Serbia and most of whom are still afraid to go home.
Amnesty International recently published a report lamenting conditions four years later. “Minorities in Kosovo continue to be denied access both to their basic human rights, and to any effective redress for violations and abuses of those rights,” it concluded. As in Iraq, we’ve found that American military power can only do so much.
But George W. Bush still fervently believes the United States should use its preeminent military power to reshape the world in our image. Wesley Clark shares that faith, and differs only in where and how he would pursue it.
That gives us a choice between conservative imperialism and liberal imperialism. How about a candidate who offers an end to imperialism?
Steve Chapman writes for Creators Syndicate.