Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, we are told endlessly, is running on his record. Never mind that he has no record to speak of on most domestic policy matters. What is really troubling is that, when it comes to his putative area of expertise — national security, Mr. Clark seems perfectly prepared to run away from his record, or at least to dissemble about it.
A prime example is Mr. Clark’s position on the war in Iraq. He got into trouble on this score as soon as he announced his candidacy by saying that, had he been in Congress, he would “probably” have voted for the congressional resolution authorizing military action against Saddam Hussein. Within hours, he was denying that was his view and insisting he opposed the war all along.
In fact, as the race has tightened, Mr. Clark has become in some ways even more strident than Howard Dean, the most vociferous antiwar candidate among the mainstream Democratic presidential hopefuls. Citing his authority as a professional military officer, Mr. Clark has made a signature issue of what he regards as George W. Bush’s diversion of firepower and intelligence capabilities from the real war on terror — the pursuit of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda — to the needless overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Along the way, Mr. Clark has also raised questions about President Bush’s integrity, lending weight to charges the latter deliberately misled the American people about the threat posed by Saddam, the status of his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs and the Iraqi dictator’s actual ties to terror.
Unfortunately for Mr. Clark, if voters do judge him on his record, they are likely to be deeply troubled by serious questions it raises about his integrity and conduct.
Such questions were notably prompted by the revelation last week that Mr. Clark gave testimony on the eve of congressional action on the Iraq war resolution that sounded virtually indistinguishable from the views of the Bush administration. For example, on Sept. 26, 2002, the retired general told the House Armed Services Committee:
“[Saddam Hussein] does retain his chemical and biological capabilities to some extent and he is, as far as we know, actively pursuing nuclear capabilities, though he doesn’t have nuclear warheads yet. If he were to acquire nuclear weapons, I think our friends in the region would face greatly increased risks, as would we. Saddam might use these weapons as a deterrent while launching attacks against Israel or his other neighbors.”
“The problem of Iraq is not a problem that can be postponed indefinitely, and of course Saddam’s current efforts themselves are violations of international law as expressed in the U.N. resolutions. Our president has emphasized the urgency of eliminating these weapons and weapons programs. … I strongly support his efforts to encourage the United Nations to act on this problem and in taking this to the United Nations, the president’s clear determination to act if … the United Nations can’t, provides strong leverage for undergirding ongoing diplomatic efforts. …”
“I think an inspection program will provide some impedance and interference with Saddam’s [WMD] efforts. I think it can undercut the legitimacy and authority of his regime at home. I think it can provide warning of further developments. I think it can establish a trigger. I think it can build legitimacy for the United States. Ultimately, it’s going to be inadequate in the main.”
“I think there’s no question that, even though we may not have the evidence [of contacts between Saddam and al Qaeda], that there have been such contacts. It’s normal. It’s natural. These are a lot of bad actors in the same region together. They are going to bump into each other. They are going to exchange information. They’re going to feel each other out and see whether there are opportunities to cooperate. That’s inevitable in this region, and I think it’s clear that regardless of whether or not such evidence is produced of these connections that Saddam Hussein is a threat.”
Wes Clark can legitimately contend he was wrong back in the fall of 2002 and that his considered opinion is what he says today, when he effectively repudiates his previous positions. What he cannot do — certainly not while laying a higher claim to integrity than President Bush — is to contend that what he said then and what he is saying now are the same.
Of course, Mr. Clark’s distortion of his views on Iraq are not the only instance in which he has willfully misled the public on a vital national security matter. Arguably, an even more important example occurred Jan. 8, 2004, when he told the Concord Monitor that: “If I’m president of the United States, I’m going to take care of the American people. We are not going to have one of these incidents [like the September 11 terrorist attacks].”
No one can make such a promise. And no one who holds himself out as a responsible practitioner of security policy — let alone a trustworthy commander in Chief — would assert, even for a moment, that he could.
Wesley Clark is running on a platform that he is uniquely qualified to provide leadership for America. His record to date — and his representations of it — suggests that what he offers instead is misleadership, something we can certainly do without.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.