Gen. Wesley Clark, unplugged

The war hero, CNN analyst and potential Democratic presidential candidate speaks frankly to Salon about the tragic turn in Iraq and how Bush bungled the case for war.

Published March 24, 2003 7:58PM (EST)

While the CNN makeup artists apply their craft to his increasingly familiar, chiseled mug, retired four-star Gen. Wesley Clark talks to me on his cellphone. "I gotta get off in a second here, I'm about to go on the air," he says.

The highly decorated former Supreme Allied Commander of the NATO forces in Europe, Clark, 58, is one of the most ubiquitous experts explaining the war to TV viewers. He's a natural, "at his best when he's talking about the specifics of warfare," according to CNN's Tucker Carlson, cohost of "Crossfire." "Clark can talk in detail about military hardware, tell you that Scuds are 60 or 70 feet long, he knows about war." And he's nimble with analogies; when asked why the U.S. military couldn't locate Scud missiles the Iraqis are said to have, Carlson recalls with appreciation, "He said it was 'like trying to find something on a carpet while looking through a straw.'"

He's also a much-rumored possible Democratic presidential candidate, a prospect he will neither confirm nor deny. In fact, he doesn't like to talk about it at all. But his appeal to Democrats is undeniable. Clark graduated first in his class from the United States Military Academy at West Point and was a Rhodes scholar. After a lengthy military career that included stints in Vietnam, Panama and Dayton, Ohio (where he led the military negotiations for the Bosnian Peace Accords), Clark achieved the most notice in his three years as commander of the NATO forces that defeated the forces of former Yugoslav President Slobodon Milosevic in 1999. He was headstrong and controversial -- and not on good terms with Defense Secretary William Cohen.

After being abruptly relieved of his command right after his Kosovo victory, Clark returned home to Little Rock, Ark., and began work on his memoirs -- "Waging Modern War: Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Future of Combat" -- and worked as a corporate consultant for the Stephens Group. His name was mentioned, then self-removed, as a possible Arkansas Senate candidate in 2002. But his subsequent trips to first-in-the-nation primary states Iowa and New Hampshire and his chats with key politicos such as Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, keep Clark in the Democratic dark horse category -- even if he hasn't registered yet as a Democrat.

You're unlikely to hear Clark the candidate speak up on CNN, now that we're in the middle of war. But when Salon spoke to Clark just before Operation Iraqi Freedom commenced, he didn't shy away from criticizing Bush foreign policy. "I don't think the case has been made well," Clark told Salon about a war with Iraq. "It's been made very poorly." But little is known about Clark's views on much else other than foreign policy and military matters. Clark told a dinner gathering of New Hampshire Democrats that he is pro-choice and opposes the presence of "out" gays and lesbians in the military. And he was one of several former military men to file a pro-affirmative action "friend of the court" brief on behalf of the University of Michigan. But tax cuts, healthcare, guns -- Clark is a blank slate, likely to remain that way at least until the end of the war. And, for possibly much longer than that, Democrats and political geeks will be left to wonder: Will he or won't he?

Salon spoke to Clark several times by telephone last week. On Sunday, four days into Operation Iraqi Freedom, we caught up with him again to talk about the status of the war. Those questions and answers are at the end of the interview.

I know you're not going to declare your intentions to run on the phone with me right now. But help me out here -- other than on abortion, gays in the military and affirmative action, is there any other domestic issue you've stated your take on?

I haven't given any positions recently, because I'm just trying to work on national security stuff and my CNN stuff.

If you do run, the media will end up combing through your life. Is there anything that might not withstand that scrutiny? Are you ready for those questions?

I'm just not going to answer that. I will say this: If I were to make such a decision, obviously I'd have to be prepared for those issues.

You've had kind words to say about your fellow Arkansan, President Clinton. When's the last time you talked to him?

A few weeks ago, maybe.

What did you talk about?

I talk to a lot of people, and I just like to leave it at that. We talked about international affairs, our national security policy, and other things.

What, if anything, would you have done differently in the current crisis?

Well, I would have said that at the outset we should have built a stronger legal framework on the whole war on terror and then worked to bring NATO into it so we had the NATO nations engaged more actively for the war on terror. And that in turn would have led naturally into the work against Iraq.

How would that have worked naturally into the work against Iraq?

Because you would have built a case why you needed to take action against Iraq.

So you think the case has been made well then?

I don't think the case has been made well. It's been made very poorly.

But it could have been made?

I believe it could have been made. Although the element of urgency was always missing.

You've referred to the campaign against Iraq as "elective surgery"; I imagine that means that you support disarming Saddam in principle, just not with the same urgency the Bush administration feels.

My view on it was and has been that at some point you're going to need to take actions to deal with the problem of Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction. But those actions didn't have to necessarily be military and they didn't have to be now. It's the administration that chose to do this set of actions at this time. And the reason they've had problems persuading people of the necessity for doing it has been because they couldn't address the urgency.

If you had been in charge in 1991, during the Gulf War, would you have taken him out of power?

There was no way in 1991, given the mandate, the mood of the American people, the strength of the Iraqi military, the capabilities of the United States, and so forth -- it wasn't realistic that you would have gone to Baghdad and taken him out of power at that point.

But since then there obviously has been some diplomatic efforts. So what would you have done differently in the last 12 years?

Well, the diplomatic effort started to flag in the mid- to late-90s. We began to lose French support for the actions to restrain him in a no-fly zone. Then we bombed, and after we bombed there was no hope of getting the inspectors back in -- this is December '98. And at that point we began the enforcement of the no-fly zones by continuing air presence and the episodic bombing campaigns in the northern and southern no-fly zones. Which, in turn, undercut our legitimacy to impose tighter sanctions -- and we had to give way on sanctions.

When the [Bush] administration came in, [Secretary of State] Colin Powell wanted to do "smart sanctions," but to be honest he didn't have the backing -- at least it wasn't clear that he had the backing -- from within the administration to make this a priority effort for the administration. And that's what it would have taken. Subsequent to 9/11, there was a decision then made, "Let's go attack Iraq" -- apparently that decision was made -- and the framework of the decision wasn't "Gee, we've got a terrible problem with Iraq, what are we going to do, let's talk about the problem." Instead, they apparently moved in their own private counsel and said simply, "We've got to have regime change in Baghdad."

And the problem with moving that quickly was that even though there had been a U.S. government policy to support an eventual regime change in Baghdad, it had never been aggressively pursued. So when they jumped to espouse this program, they left behind an American public, which was simply basically disinterested in Iraq but highly interested in pursuing the war on terror. And at the same time they left behind European and world public opinion, which couldn't quite grasp the connection between 9/11 and Iraq.

In the end, though, do you think that if what you call the "public diplomacy piece" had all happened, that it's still possible we would have ended up with a situation where it came to military action against Iraq?

Well, I'm not going to rule anything out. You can't hypothesize and say it would never come up that way. It might very well have ended up with a requirement for military action. But we've always said the stronger the coalition, the more cohesion, the more legitimacy you had behind it, the easier the war and the easier dealing with the aftermath.

In a story you wrote for the Washington Monthly, you talked about the importance of working with allies, even when a leader's electoral future hinges on the success of the military campaign, as Tony Blair is experiencing right now.

Yeah. [Laughs]

But Americans are reluctant to work too closely with the U.N. or have U.S. soldiers under the command of non-Americans. Say someday you are in charge of the military as commander in chief, how would you convince others of the importance of working with allies.

I think the importance of working with allies is going to become self-evident in the aftermath of this operation. We're not going to be able to maintain stability in the Middle East, support the reconstruction of post-Saddam Iraq, deal with the challenges of North Korea, continue this struggle against terrorism, and face the problem of Iran alone and still return to prosperity in this country. It's bigger than what we can do.

You've used the term "colonial presence" for what we're going to be after this war, and compared the U.S. to the British and the Ottoman empires in that respect. Are you being a little hyperbolic there? I mean, it's not really a colonial presence, we're not going to stay there.

Well, I certainly hope we're not going to stay there. I hope we'll get out as rapidly as is feasible. But we also have to recognize that it may take some time there before we can expect a democracy and a stable environment. I mean, we're moving into what has historically been a Middle Eastern Yugoslavia, racked by internal tension and fractious relations welded together in a state by the iron grip of Saddam Hussein. With that off, there's no telling what the fractionating forces will seek.

So the idea that you can sort of come in there quickly and say, "OK, you got your liberty, here it is, don't starve, be good," and leave is stretching. In addition to all the other problems, you're dealing with an Islamic country and the Islamic world is going to resent what we're doing. And that will add to the pressures and frictions that we will face there -- on the other hand, providing us with ample reason to leave sooner and on the other hand, making a transition to a pro-Western Iraqi government more difficult and problematic.

So you don't share the president's optimism that this is going to be the first Middle Eastern country in a sort of democracy domino effect?

I think that's possible, but I wouldn't say that's the most likely outcome. The most likely outcome is a stuttering instability in the region, intensified repression by some states, marginal moderation in others, and for the region more uncertainty ... that's the most likely outcome.

Should we work to make it a better outcome than that? Absolutely. Could we do that? Perhaps we can. But the "optimistic outlook" that some people have talked about is exactly that: It is optimistic, and it's not the most likely outcome.

Of the people who are running this war, from Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld and Powell on down, in terms of the political appointees, are there are any who you particularly like who you would work with again, hypothetically, in some ...

I like all the people who are there. I've worked with them before. I was a White House Fellow in the Ford administration when Secretary Rumsfeld was White House chief of staff and later Secretary of Defense, and Dick Cheney was the deputy chief of staff at the White House and later the chief.

[Deputy Secretary of Defense] Paul Wolfowitz I've known for many, many years. [Deputy National Security Advisor] Steve Hadley at the White House is an old friend. [Under Secretary of Defense for Policy] Doug Feith I worked with very intensively during the time we negotiated the Dayton Peace Agreement; he was representing the Bosnian Muslims then, along with [Pentagon advisor] Richard Perle. So I like these people a lot. They're not strangers. They're old colleagues.

Do you disagree with them on their worldview?

I disagreed with them on some specific aspects. I would not have gone after the war on terror exactly as [they] did and I laid that out in the [new foreword to the paperback edition of "Waging Modern War"]. But I also know there's no single best plan. You have to pick a plan that might work and make it work. That means you've got to avoid the plans with the fatal flaws. This administration came into office predisposed to use American troops for war fighting and to realign American foreign policy so it focused on a more robust, more realistic view of the world than the supposedly idealistic view of the previous administration.

But the views that President Bush espoused recently at the American Enterprise Institute, if his predecessor had espoused that view he'd have been hooted off the stage, laughed at, accused of being incredibly idealistic about the hard-nosed practical politics of the Middle East. So this is an administration that's moving in a certain direction, and now that that's the direction they've picked they've got to make it work. Like everybody else, I hope they'll be successful. It's too important; we can't afford to fail.

But certainly you're contemplating running for president -- I understand you haven't made a decision -- so even though you root for their success, you can't agree with their methods.

For me it's not about candidacies, it's about ideas. A lot of people have talked to me about seeking political office. But they've done so because of the ideas I'm expressing and they're interested in the concepts of a new American strategy, a strategic dialogue with the American people, a different way of looking at the world, a different image for America in the eyes of those abroad, a different means for accomplishing and protecting our national interest than what the administration has proposed.

Well, that's what I'm asking. I'm saying --

So for me it's about following through on the dialogue, it's not about candidacy.

I understand that, I'm just pointing out that your ideas are different from the ones being acted on right now.

This is not an abstract debate. This is about the future welfare and safety of this country. I want the administration, I want them to be successful. If I didn't, I probably wouldn't be offering ideas like this. I certainly want them to succeed. Just like every American should.

Well, bearing that in mind, how do you think the war on terror is going?

I think it's gone reasonably well, recognizing that we were never against the KGB. These guys were lucky but they were largely inept. And for all the talk about their sophistication and so forth, I think people were giving themselves a large measure of credit for being able to deal with the issue.

But the actual fact is, just like they said when they broke the code on Khalid Mohammed's laptop, it wasn't a very sophisticated code. It may have been encoded but it wasn't very sophisticated and they easily broke it. This is not the KGB we've been up against. So I don't want to diminish anything we've done, I think it's gone reasonably well -- we haven't been attacked again, and that's the way it should have been. I always felt that if we did things right we wouldn't be attacked again.

But is there anything you would do differently?

You should go back to my [Washington Monthly] article -- what I've said is international cooperation, harmonization of laws, and so forth. One of the things about the war on terror that I am disturbed about is that we've essentially suspended habeas corpus. Which is something that's only been done once in American history and then only for a very brief period.

When I go back and think about the atmosphere in which the PATRIOT Act was passed, it begs for a reconsideration and review. And it should be done. Law enforcement agencies will always chafe at any restriction whatsoever when they're in the business of trying to get their job done. But in practice we've always balanced the need for law enforcement with our own protection of our constitutional rights and that's a balance that will need to be reviewed.

Civil libertarians feel that the Democratic Party rolled over on a lot of that stuff when the PATRIOT Act came up. There have been a lot of criticisms of the Democratic Party in general on acquiescing to much that the Bush administration has done. I know that you haven't declared yourself a member of the party, though you voted in the Democratic Party in Arkansas in 2000, as I understand it ...

I did, I did.

So what do you think of the Democratic leadership?

I like them. I've got friends on both sides of the aisle. People voted as best they could under some very difficult circumstances to try to do the best they could for the country. And I wasn't there. In retrospect, now, as you look at it, given the success that we're having -- we'll see what happens here now, I know that [Homeland Security Secretary] Tom Ridge has warned today [Wednesday] that we're going to be attacked -- but after this episode passes, it will be appropriate to review the PATRIOT Act, what its plusses were, what its minuses were, and get the balance right. This is for America's long-term future if we're into this war.

Your book tells some stories about run-ins you had with military brass while you were in charge of NATO forces in Europe, like the time you gave a press conference, and Defense Secretary William Cohen had Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Hugh Shelton deliver a rather harsh message to you ["Get your fucking face off the TV"] --

I gave a press conference in Brussels, and I was asked about the Serbs. [The reporter] heard one thing, it wasn't what I was saying, and the way the headline writer wrote it out made it look like the United States was failing in its war. And what Shelton told me is that in the White House meeting, Bill Clinton had read the article and said, "Well, he didn't say anything wrong there." Nonetheless, I got the guidance that you're referring to from Shelton.

Is there anything you would have done differently as commander of NATO forces in the Kosovo campaign?

We came forward and did the best we could at the time. Obviously, had we been able to discuss the option of ground troops earlier it maybe would have been easier to bring pressure on Milosevic. But we did succeed and I think that stands on its own merits.

The conservative Christopher Caldwell assessed your book and made a few critiques: He questioned your "attempt to leave the impression there was no coordination between the Croatian infantry assault on Serb positions in the Krajina in 1995 and American air attacks." He also wondered about your assertion that the June 1999 attacks by the Kosovo Liberation Army were made completely independent from what U.S. forces wanted to do, questioning why you didn't acknowledge that the U.S. coordinated with local ground forces.

The answer is, I didn't have anything to do with it. I was the first to ask to make that coordination and I was told no. So I don't know that was coordination -- and if there was, it was not authorized by me, so it would be a violation of the principle of command in theater.

But I'm not denying that the Albanians attacked, and though I didn't think it was a smart move I did try to use it.

In terms of the Croatians in 1995, I wasn't even commander then, so I had nothing to do with it. At the time I was with the joint staff back in Washington. I kept hearing stories that the CIA was doing things. But I didn't know anything about it, and I certainly wasn't doing any coordinating. And it's one of the things that, if they were doing it, I find it highly disturbing. Because you have to have unity of command in the theater, so if I didn't know of them doing it I hope they weren't. That's the kind of thing that leads to failure in war.

So in answer to the critic, I wasn't trying to strain credulity, I was just telling it like it was.

After the Kosovo operation was finished, and NATO was victorious, you were relieved of your command a few months early, seen by many as a slap in the face. In your book, you say that you have no idea who was behind it or why. But the book came out in 2001; have you figured it out yet?

You know, I never have. I never went back and I never asked. You know, that's all in the past. You've got to move on in life.

[Editors note: The following portion of the interview occurred Sunday.]

So obviously there's been a lot of bad news in the last day or so. How do you think Operation Iraqi Freedom is going?

Well, despite the fact that we've had some rough days, it's still going to be a military mismatch. In any military operation -- even the ones without an adversary -- you have accidents, you have mistakes made.

Our dash across the border was in largely unoccupied territory. But now's the time we're really going to depend on our troops. And my heart's with the troops -- the men, women, their families. They didn't ask for this mission but it was given to them.

How long do you think the fighting will last?

Well, I said two to three weeks. But that was all premised on our having our force there and being ready to go at the outset. Of course we weren't. The 4th Infantry Division was in ships off the coast of Turkey. The 1st Armor Division was still in Germany. The First Cavalry was still at Fort Hood.

Why would the Pentagon start the war if not all the troops were in place?

I can't explain it. I can't defend it; I've never seen the plan. This is the decision that was made. It might work out; then again, it might not.

Does this mean you'll change your prediction from two to three weeks?

It may be longer than that, but it's still early. So I'm not changing my prediction at this point.

There was a story in Sunday's New York Times about hand-wringing in the CIA about the White House's use of documents that the CIA didn't trust, ones that bolstered its argument that Iraq was seeking to make nuclear weapons. And apparently even though the CIA suspected that some of the materials supposedly proving that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger were forged documents, President Bush continued to use them to argue for war. What do you think about all that?

I didn't see the article, but I'm familiar with the case of the documents. I think there's been an extraordinary effort by the government to try to pull together all the facts and analyses it can to justify taking this course of action.

And if the facts and analyses are forged and discredited by our own intelligence agencies?

Well, I wouldn't support putting stuff in there that was fraudulent. I'm not sure who knew they were fraudulent and who knew of their use.

As a retired general, and as someone whose son has served in the military, don't you find it a bit odd or disconcerting that of all 535 men and women in Congress, there's apparently only one -- Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D. -- who has a son or daughter fighting in this war?

I think it's a function of the system we have for manning our armed forces, which we in America approved of, which is a volunteer force.

Last Thursday, in an interview with Newsweek/the Washington Post, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that he told Secretary of State Colin Powell that Turkey "would like to see Turkish troops in northern Iraq and they approved that." Are we selling out the Kurds again?

The Kurds have been pawns in power struggles for over a century. They've suffered enormous casualties in one conflict after another. They've lived in the worst of geopolitical neighborhoods. But Turkey has denied that their soldiers have gone into northern Iraq.

On Thursday, I spoke with Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan, as well as with a former senior military officer during Operation Desert Storm, and both expressed chagrin that the White House was comparing the "Coalition of the Willing" for this war with the truly multinational effort of Desert Storm 12 years ago. Some 32 countries provided troops in 1991, compared with three this time around, yet the Bush White House is actually arguing that this coalition is bigger.

Well, as I told you, I don't think the president built the case and developed the coalition. I've always been concerned -- and you know from my writing -- that there wasn't evidence to justify the urgency to justify moving against Saddam Hussein right now. Rather than presenting the international community with a problem and asking its assistance in helping to resolve it, the United States government effectively presented the solution and asked for countries to agree with its views. And too many didn't.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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