- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 17, 2003

After considering the strengths and weaknesses of the rest of the field, retired Gen. Wesley Clark yesterday became the 10th Democrat to seek the party’s nomination to take on President Bush at the polls next year. With Mr. Bush’s approval ratings slipping and Democrats feeling more comfortable criticizing a war president, it makes sense that a man with military experience might add credibility to the opposition ticket. Mr. Clark’s curriculum vitae could put Republicans on the defensive about defense policies, but we’re not convinced his candidacy will pack much firepower.

One undeniably attractive quality Mr. Clark offers is his record during the Vietnam War, where he was honored with the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. After this youthful heroism, however, his abilities as an officer have received constant criticism. One retired four-star general called his ideas for command “goofy,” and told The Washington Post that, “The simple fact is, a lot of people just don’t trust his ability.” One soldier who served under Mr. Clark told us that, “It was obvious that his only priority was his own advancement, and his troops were just tools to help him climb up the ranks.” During this campaign, expect to hear a steady flow of criticism from soldiers who worked around him.

Mr. Clark’s reputation among his own men caused Col. David Hackworth, the most decorated living American soldier, to question him for getting promotions through “the political route. He didn’t have the kind of assignments that a real muddy-boots grunt would have, someone like Schwarzkopf.” This career track is blamed for some of his strategic combat blunders, the most notorious of which was his plan to confront Russian troops who had seized the Pristina airport during the Balkan war. British Gen. Mike Jackson committed insubordination in refusing Mr. Clark’s orders, saying, “I’m not going to start the Third World War for you.” This is not a pretty anecdote for a candidate whose main selling point is his military mind.

An even more significant obstacle could be that Mr. Clark does not offer much of a political alternative to the other Democratic candidates. Many Democratic operatives are desperate to beat the ultra-liberal Howard Dean, who is now the frontrunnner. His two main constituencies are antiwar activists and other progressive activists (especially advocates for gay rights) — two groups to which the former general does not promise to hold much appeal. That makes him merely one of the nine anti-Dean choices fighting for the same pool of votes. Mr. Clark still has minimal name recognition with the public. Also, as an amateur in politics, like so many before him, Mr. Clark is likely to make many mistakes. Some may consider politics a black art, but it is an art nonetheless.

Nor does having four stars on one’s shoulders guarantee success in politics. Since the Civil War, only two generals have been elected president without first holding another elected office. The two who went directly from the generalship to the presidency were Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ulysses S. Grant, who respectively defeated Hitler and saved the union. By comparison, all Mr. Clark has done as commander is order bombs to be dropped on a more or less defenseless Serbian civilian population. In the period since World War I, only one other man has made it to the White House without previous experience in elected office — and that candidate, Herbert Hoover, was a worldwide icon for helping Europe get back on its feet after the Great War. If history is any measure, Hurricane Wesley might have slammed into Arkansas yesterday, but it can be expected to lose strength as it advances.

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