"I knew how he thought": Wesley Clark on Milosevic, neocons and America's future

The retired 4-star general and ex-presidential candidate tells Salon about ISIS, Iraq and our uncertain road ahead

By Elias Isquith
Published October 17, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)
Wesley Clark         (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)
Wesley Clark (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)

If you're trying to put together a list of the most accomplished people living today, it's hard to imagine former Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, four-star general, West Point valedictorian, Rhodes Scholar and presidential candidate Wesley Clark not ending up somewhere rather high on that list. And while history will likely best remember Clark as the man who was more responsible than any other (besides perhaps President Bill Clinton) for NATO's conduct in the late-90s Kosovo War, Clark has remained a force on the world stage ever since, writing, speaking and offering analysis and advice.

That's very much the role Clark plays in his new book, "Don't Wait for the Next War: Rethinking America's Global Mission," which is both an attempt to outline the state of geopolitics today as well as offer a "national strategy" for the U.S. in the near- and medium-term future. Salon recently spoke with Clark over the phone to discuss his book, the war on ISIS and how he today sees the war in Kosovo and his legacy. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

You open the book with a history of U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, which you describe as often adrift — or worse. Can you tell me a bit about how you think Washington has tried to adjust to the post-Soviet era?

For 40 years, during the Cold War, the basic construct of American foreign policy, which President Eisenhower had laid out, basically said that even though Democrats and Republicans differed, they had to put those differences aside enough to be able to work together to overcome [the Soviet Union]. The other component of it was Eisenhower's recognition that you couldn't provide security for the United States by simply investing in military hardware and forces at the expense of … the American economy. He recognized that our real strength was the power of our industrial production and our technology. That was what I’m calling “a national strategy.”

At the end of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union in 1991, there were three contrasting views: there was the Democratic view that said ... we've probably got too many [military forces], but as long as they're here, let's use them to stop conflict, save people's lives and do good works around the world. The Republican mainstream view was: We won; it's over; let's bring these forces home. And there was also a minority Republican view that said: “What we learned in the Gulf War was that we can now use military force; we don't have to follow a military strategy of deterrence. We can actually use these forces like we did in kicking Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. We can finish the job on him and … get rid of these old Soviet surrogate states in the Middle East before the next great superpower comes along.”

So we bounced through the 1990s without ever really resolving any of these things … There was no consensus, because there seemed to be no need for it. Then 9/11 happened. Now we had an enemy. America came back together again. But, unfortunately, it was that minority Republican view that seemed to take hold and grip the nation. So we went after Saddam Hussein; we got ourselves involved in the Middle East. We lacked a broader strategic appreciation … and it was a misplaced use of force, a misunderstanding of America's role in the world … and it ended with a tremendous loss of life resources.

President Obama has tried to correct this, but we still don't have in place today an understood, credible, effective, explainable, national strategy for America.

Do you see the war with ISIS as a manifestation of our lack of a national strategy?

There are [a few] issues here. One issue is, you've got to really look at what the strength of America is and what our capabilities are. And we've got to get our economy in order. We've got major long-term challenges — things like the long-term war on terrorism, cyber security, readjusting the regulatory system, making sure we've got financial stability and the ascent of China — that will require a strong economy. And, of course, looming over everything, there's climate change.

So before we go racing off to react to the fact that two Americans were beheaded in the Middle East, we've got to put it in a larger context.

Well, not to ask you to just give your book away, but —

[Laughs] No, I'm happy to give it away.

All right: So what is that larger context?

People around the world look at the United States and they have seen a very, very slow recovery, they've seen the fact that income distribution is wildly out of whack with what the legend is about America — that everybody is equal and there's a large middle class. It's not happening … The politics is ugly, there's stalemate on many of the major issues, and people around the world are saying, "Well, maybe this is not the model for us, maybe America is not going to be the greatest country in the world." They're looking at the rise of China, and they're asking themselves, "Maybe we should be more sympathetic to China, maybe we should listen to China, let's hedge our bets." And so it's an inflection point for America.

To your point about China and the larger anxiety over the idea of the U.S. no longer being the leading nation in the world, do you think there’s any validity to the criticism the president’s been receiving — not just from Republicans, but from some Democrats, too — that says he’s pulled back from the global stage too much, with the rise of ISIS as a result?

I think that that's a very America-centric view of the world. What's happening in the region is, we're in the middle of an effort by Islam that really began 300 years ago to come to terms with the Western world, modern technology, and a different civilization. It's an amazing story, and this is just a small episode in it. So if you say, "Oh, gee, if Obama had just left 10,000 troops in Iraq, none of this would have happened"? Come on. That's just not the way the world works.

Do you agree, though, with the president (and most stewards of conventional wisdom) that ISIS, even if it’s not an existential threat, is still a real challenge the U.S. cannot afford to ignore? Or is it a distraction?

I think ISIS is a significant challenge to the United States, and I think we have to work against it, and we have to work against it in a smart way. We just can't believe that we were responsible for creating it. We weren't. The money that went into ISIS came from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and it came particularly from the work of the Saudi leadership trying to find an opposition to Bashar Assad in Syria.

So it’s a problem, but it’s a mistake to take the America-centric view of the world that says it’s a problem of the U.S.’s creation?

Right. And so if you're going to work against it, my recommendation for how to do it is that you use U.S. airpower to enable local ground forces to combat ISIS, and you help empower a moderate Syrian government with a moderate interpretation of Islam to govern the area, with the understanding that they will prevent the extremist terrorist use of Islam to threaten other countries.

You know, one thing I’ve kind of always wanted to ask you, but especially want to ask you in light of the war on ISIS, is how you feel about attempts by some defenders of the invasion of Iraq to claim that your work with NATO forces in Kosovo “proved” humanitarian interventions were not only effective but wise. To be fair, the war on ISIS has not, by and large, been sold to the public as being humanitarian first and foremost (neither was invasing Iraq, for that matter); but I think the general meme that you somehow deserve credit or blame for the new conventional wisdom on these kind of military incursions persists.

It’s a very interesting question. First of all, it wasn't exactly humanitarian intervention when we went into Kosovo. NATO had warned Milosevic not to use violence against his own people. We had 30,000 NATO troops on the ground in Bosnia, and we'd had the Dayton Agreement in place, and had we relied on Milosevic and let him then use force in Kosovo, it would have completely undercut the agreement in Bosnia. So it was really a matter of not only preventing ethnic cleansing, but it also of regional stability, to be able to hang on in Kosovo and prevent the ethnic cleansing there. It was a matter of keeping stability in the whole region.

Secondly, the military action was directed against Slobodan Milosevic. I was in an amazing position of having spent maybe 100 hours with Milosevic in a small group, sometimes one-on-one. I knew his mind; I knew how he thought; and I knew that we could win against him if we used limited military force, because he was both rational and fearful. So [we] used the escalating efforts of the air campaign, the threat of ground intervention, and then a negotiation overseen by the Fins and the Russians, (which we provided all the substance to) to persuade Milosevic to give up.

This is entirely different than what was done in the case of Iraq. There was no effort … to persuade Saddam Hussein through the use of power to change his ways. We didn't do that. We didn't even have a planned political solution for what would happen when we got to Baghdad. In the case of Kosovo, we had it all laid out in advance. In the case of Iraq, there was no plan, no use of military power to reach a political solution. Instead, there was a military plan that ended with the U.S. occupation — and no political strategy. So the planning was woefully misplaced and misguided. It's a totally different kind of operation.

And with ISIS?

Now, you're going against ISIS. You're not going to persuade this man, [ISIS leader Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi to be reasonable. He's not a reasonable man. He won't change his mind. He'll likely fight 'til the end. And like Muammar Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein, he'll probably be pulled from a hole in the ground somewhere. So the use of force has to be directed in an entirely different purpose. You've got to take away his capabilities.

But hopefully it won't be done by U.S. ground forces, because what we know is that when you put U.S. ground troops in [the Middle East], although they can certainly wield the firepower, they lack the other attributes. They're not culturally compatible with the local population. They can't stay and effectively administer. And they certainly can't support a government. You don't want to be an occupying power in the Mideast — not with a Judeo-Christian army.

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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