- The Washington Times - Friday, October 31, 2003

I liked Wesley Clark better as a general than a presidential candidate. As a general, his public pronouncements were measured, responsible and careful — whatever he may have been saying behind the scenes. (Pentagon politics can be almost as vicious as the academic kind.)

But now that he’s a presidential candidate, his way with words — out in public, for all to hear and cringe at — is a little too loose. Correction: Way too loose.

The other day — September 11, actually — the retired general met with the editors of Rolling Stone. When excerpts from that interview appeared in the magazine, Mr. Clark didn’t come across as the commander, diplomat, author, Rhodes Scholar and serious presidential aspirant he is.

Instead, he sounded like the confiding guy on the next bar stool. Less like a Dwight Eisenhower than a Curtis LeMay — or maybe an Edwin Walker firing off conspiracy theories in short bursts.

Granted, Rolling Stone is not exactly Foreign Affairs, but it still deserves better than the general gave it. Judge for yourself. Here’s what Mr. Clark said when asked why he disagrees with the administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq:

“After September 11, I watched as the administration’s policy diverged step by step from where it should have been. I went to the Pentagon nine days after the attacks and called on a man with three stars who used to work for me. He said, ‘Sir, I have to ask you, have you heard the joke going through the halls?’ I said, ‘No, what is it?’ ‘It goes like this: “If Saddam Hussein didn’t do 9/11, too bad. He should have ‘cause we’re going to get him anyway.”’ He looked at me, and I looked at him, and we both knew that it would be a classic mistake if we did that.

“I was relieved when we attacked Afghanistan, but I went back to the Pentagon as that war was going on, and this same guy said to me, ‘Oh, yes, sir, not only is it Afghanistan. There’s a list of countries. We’re not good at fighting terrorists, so we’re going after states: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia and Iran. There’s a five-year plan.’ From that moment on, I couldn’t believe any more that I was just a retired general of the United States Army. I saw something wrong, but I couldn’t get anyone to listen, so I started to speak out last September in a vocal way.”

Goodness. All sorts of questions are raised when a presidential candidate starts making foreign policy judgments on the basis of Pentagon gossip. For example: Who was the three-star general who let him in on the administration’s five-year plan? Is he related to the Mysterious Caller who earlier told Mr. Clark about a White House conspiracy to smear the fair name of Saddam Hussein by linking him to September 11? Does this secret plan exist? If so, where can we get a copy?

I didn’t know what to think about this interview of his in Rolling Stone. The polite thing might have been to avert my eyes and pretend this wasn’t happening. Was this a presidential candidate being interviewed or a particularly unedifying locker-room conversation?

The cocksure generalizations and shots-from-the-lip continued, tumbling over each other in no clear order, rushing by too quickly for the interviewer to hold each up to the light even if he had wanted to. For example:

“We made a strategic blunder [in Iraq]. We attacked a state rather than going after a terrorist.” In that case, why was the general all in favor of our going to war in Afghanistan? The United States attacked a state there, too, recognizing that one way to undermine terrorists is to change the regimes that offer them shelter.

But “Iraq had no connection to the war on terror,” Mr. Clark confidently assured Rolling Stone. Really? The terrorists didn’t seem to know that. Notorious ones like Abu Nidal and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi took refuge there; The former was in Baghdad when he met a mysterious end; the latter established a sizable base in northern Iraq.

Mr. Clark proceeded to attack the notion that Saddam Hussein represented an imminent threat to this country, although the rationale for the war in Iraq was precisely the opposite: That we had learned from September 11 that the free world dare not wait till a strategic threat is imminent before acting against it — because then it would be too late.

President Bush made that point again and again, but his critics are determined to attack the case he didn’t make. You can hardly blame them. It’s so much easier to attack a straw man, as Mr. Clark keeps doing.

In short, some of us had hoped Mr. Clark would campaign on a higher level. He still can.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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