In my reckless youth I briefly sported an "I Like Ike" button, which didn't go over particularly well in my corner of the Bronx, where support of even a moderate Republican represented a betrayal of everything decent.
In hindsight, though, I was right -- the genial general-turned-president proved to be a warrior for peace and an important critic of what he saw as a "military-industrial complex" that threatened the very fabric of democracy: "We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."
I bring up this ancient history now because I think of retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark as potentially another Eisenhower, a leader for tense times who is properly cautious about the deadly follies of war.
The juggernaut of defense contractors, hawkish think tanks and a $400 billion annual Pentagon budget is just as powerful as ever, wielding an agenda that rarely matches what taxpayers want or the country needs: war, or at least the constant threat of war, and the most expensive war toys our scientists can imagine.
Isn't it odd that after a terrorist attack that relied on $2 box cutters, we are redoubling our pursuit of fantastical weaponry, giving billions in tax dollars to the same war profiteers who sell to regimes like Saddam Hussein's that will one day turn on us?
Of course, the U.S. weapons contractors win no matter who loses on the battlefield because U.S. arms sales account for at least 45 percent of total world military exports. And the industry's big shots were thrilled with Bush's effective transmogrification of a regional tyrant, Hussein, into a new world-conquering Hitler, further validating obscene expenditures in a post-Cold War era that was supposed to find us enjoying a "peace dividend."
Is it counterintuitive to hope another general might provide the same wisdom Eisenhower did? Certainly Colin Powell, who expressed some wise thoughts on the limits of American hubris in Vietnam, seems to have conveniently forgotten those hard-earned lessons to fit in on the all-hubris-all-the-time Bush team. Sometimes, however, it is the generals who know best how to wage peace.
This is not to take any credit away from Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich or other Democratic candidates waging an uphill fight to get their party to do its duty to hold the Bush administration accountable for lying us into the disastrous occupation of Iraq. Their consistency has kept the Democrats on course, as opposed to the likes of Joe Lieberman, who still defends the war in Iraq.
But in the very least it is enormously clarifying to have a battle-scarred former general front and center to explain why the president's reckless policies are weakening the nation's security.
As Clark put it last week, Bush's "headlong rush to war" resulted in "dire consequences for our security." And I don't care if Clark is a "pure" Democrat, a question that seems to trouble some of his Democratic opponents. Pure Democrats like Lyndon Johnson have also ensnared us in disastrous wars. On domestic issues, Clark demonstrated a commitment to the party's progressive wing Friday, telling the Democratic National Committee, "I want to make one thing clear: I'm pro-choice, I'm pro-affirmative action, I'm pro-environment, pro-education, pro-healthcare and pro-labor. And if that ain't a Democrat, then I must be at the wrong meeting."
But clearly Clark's main strength is in challenging the neoconservative clique that has brainwashed our naive president into a harebrained scheme of remaking the world into an American empire. In the process, they have declared war, as Clark noted, "against anyone who expresses dissent, questions their facts or challenges their logic."
And just as with Vietnam, where Clark was wounded, Iraq is proving to be a quagmire sucking up massive U.S. resources that prevent us from addressing pressing domestic problems: Social Security, healthcare, education, jobs, violence.
Last week, in calling for an "independent, comprehensive investigation into the administration's handling of the intelligence leading to war in Iraq," Clark raised the key issue facing this president. "Nothing could be a more serious violation of public trust than to consciously make a case for war based on false claims," he said.
And there you have it -- the basic issue that the Democrats must address in the next election, or it isn't worth having one.