If Karl Rove would have returned my phone calls I very well have could have been running as a Republican
- Wesley Clark
Unless things go badly wrong for the Republican Party in 2004, we'll have forgotten about Wesley Clark's relatively late entry into the Democratic Presidential Candidate race by 2005. Which is a shame, because if you examine his campaign and the circumstances it has come about in, it provides quite an insight into the dynamics of the politics of the 2004 election.
First off, I'd like to say that I think Wesley Clark is bit of a pawn or an opportunist (I can't work out which). He's about as qualified to be President of the United States of America as Wesley Snipes, and his campaign didn't start encouragingly. I shan't engage in the sort of character assassination that seeks to look back over his life and criticise him insanely for every decision he's ever made - I'll leave that sort of thing to the Democratic Party Presidential candidate contenders (yes, the Republicans were just as bad to Clinton). But what I can do is a highlight a few things Clark has said recently that suggest a certain quixotic quality of character which is not, in my opinion, wholly appropriate to someone who wants to be the POTUS.
First off, there's the quote I started this write-up with. I hate it when people take quotes out of context and extrapolate insane conclusions from them (who can forget the feeding frenzy started by Vanity Fair over Paul Wolfowitz's comments to them?), so I'll do what many pundits fail to do and give sources (the historian in me deigns they be footnotes). Clark told Colorado Governor Bill Owens and Marc Holtzman, now President of the University of Denver, that he would have been a Republican if "Karl Rove had returned my phone calls"1. Clark had been keen to join the team to fight the global war on terror, something he believed himself qualified for - after all, he knew all about constructing military coalitions from his experiences at NATO. Apparently Rove blocked the idea. It actually transpires that Clark never called Rove directly2, but that he was dead serious about how he wanted to join the Bush team. Holtzman said he "went into detail about his grievances" with Rove. And now, spurned by the GOP administration, he's running as Democrat. Whether this makes Clark a man of principle or someone trying to get their hands on power in the quickest way possible is an exercise best left to the reader.
Then there's the matter of the war on Iraq. You don't have to be Karl Rove to realise this is the issue that is very likely to make or break Bush in 2004. Pundits of all stripes have in fact realised that the fate of contenders like Clark and Howard Dean (whose anti-war stance has been unwavering) depends on the news from Iraq. Clark had been rumoured to be considering the run for the White House for quite a while, and while he was doing so he appeared as an analyst on CNN during Operation Iraqi Freedom. His comments weren't as gloomy as what I was hearing over in Great Britain on BBC News 24, but he did raise some issues that turned out to be irrelevent. This sort of doom and gloom armchair generalship of course strikes chords with "the Democratic section of the Democratic Party" (they still believe the war was an abject failure as a natural collorary to their primary belief that it was immoral), but it might not strike a chord with anyone who was a bit, well, fed up with the media's gloomy attitude (which continues). Then there's the issue of whether Clark actually supported the war at all.
On June 15th, Clark spoke to Tim Russert on "Meet the Press"3. He said that although there had been a "selective reading of the intelligence in the sense of sort of building a case" (see esp. footnote 3), Operation Desert Fox (bombing of Iraq in 1998) wasn't "the end of the problem" of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. So far uncontroversial. Since then the views he's voiced have been all over the shop, ranging from support for the war to opposition. Articles which he's written in the London Times have been particularly pro-war, with Clark saying that Tony Blair and George W. Bush "should be proud of their resolve in the face of so much doubt" (he now suggests this resolve was, rather, a shameful violation of the wills of America's allies - presumably not a point of pride!). In a later article he waxed lyrical about "liberation", which in his opinion is "the powerful balm that justifies painful sacrifice, erases lingering doubt and reinforces bold actions"4. He called for victory parades and spoke of "those who questioned the necessity or wisdom of the operation" as if they were a group that didn't include himself. Since he decided to run, he told a group of reporters that he would "probably" have voted for the Liberation of the Iraqi People Resolution had he sat in Congress for it5. His aides evidently felt damage control was necessary, because the next day they said that this isn't what Clark had meant. He only would have voted to apply more pressure to Hussein and galvanise the U.N. into action (action by whom I wonder - perhaps the French military!).6 This, of course, was obviously not what the Liberation of the Iraqi People Resolution gave the President the authority to do - it was a strategic blank cheque to invade.
Clark has also been adamant over the existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. In January this year he told CNN that Saddam "does have weapons of mass destruction", and in February he said of the weapons that "I think they will be found. There's so much intelligence on this." 7 On the strength of all this it's a bit surprising for Clark to be painted as an anti-war candidate. But the whole strength - in fact the very reason for the existence of - his campaign is that he's a sort of Howard Dean with a war record. That's probably why he was adamant in telling the Associated Press "I would never have voted for this war" and that "I've got a very consistent record on this" after the initial mishap8. But he hasn't. Compare this to Bush's consistent, clear, honest rhetoric over Iraq and the Middle East and you have problems with a public that still overwhelmingly believes the invasion was a good idea and so is the occupation. Bush said what he was going to do and he did it. Krugman can moan all he wants - no-one lied to the American public about Bush's intentions in Iraq apart from the people who expressed surprise after-the-fact (Krugman has rather belatedly realised today that America is engaged in nation building in Iraq9).
If things start going wrong in Iraq or there's another terrorist strike on U.S. shores10, then maybe Clark has a chance. Maybe he can be attached to the Dean ticket to make it look like Dean has some credibility on national security. What the Democratic Party needs is a kick in the ass. I don't like the shift leftwards its taking (anyone who thinks Howard Dean actually reflects the mood of the American people at the moment isn't living in the World I am, and one party going nuts in a two-party system can spell trouble) and I don't like how they're scrambling to make a big deal out of things that aren't a big deal. I'm not an American, and I'm a man without a Party. What I do know is that I don't like opportunist politicians with flexible principles, and I get nervous when I think disasters might propel them into power. So far the Bush strategy has played out in a way that was plainly developing while the dust of the Towers was settling. If Bush stays the course, and barring significant setbacks in Iraq, Iran or North Korea, I see little hope for Clark in 2004. But then, who can know what will occur? October 31st, and destiny, await.
Update (17/12/03), just because it's so stupendous - Clark claimed that President Bush is "more concerned about the success of Halliburton than having a success strategy in Iraq." This amounts to a charge of treason. It amazes me how candidates can spew this sort of crap and then just carry right on as if they did nothing.
Update (21/01/04) (just after SOTU). Clark said: "We're going to go to the Saudis and the Pakistanis and we're going to end the hatred, the invective, the funding, the madrassas, and help change those regimes in the Middle East." This is a more hawkish position than the President's. What. The. Fuck?
3. The transcript is here: http://stacks.msnbc.com/news/927000.asp . This transcript has come under particular scrutiny recently because it has been alleged that Clark accuses White House officials of asking him to lie on CNN for them on 9/11. The Weekly Standard maintains that in it Clark implies that he was called, by the White House, on 9/11, and told to say on CNN that Saddam Hussein and 9/11 were connected. I believe a reading of the transcript shows otherwise, but the story has gained credibility because it took Clark a while to put the story straight and because Paul Krugman (ultraliberal New York Times columnist) bought it and used it as an example of White House "corruption". Clark corrected Krugman's story in a letter to the Times which was belatedly published, adding to the problems. An article in TIME gave greater credulity to the issue. Spinsanity clears it up nicely - http://www.spinsanity.org/columns/20030903.html
4. The article was published on 4/10/03. The Wesley Clark Weblog provides the story of the development of Clark's war position - http://wesleyclarkweblog.com/archives/000342.html
6. http://www.msnbc.com/news/969659.asp?0cv=KA01&cp1=1 . I was reminded by The Weekly Standard of the Clintonism over the use-of-force vote for the Gulf War, "I guess I would have voted with the majority if it was a close vote. But I agree with the arguments the minority made."
8. "The General Jumps In", TIME Europe, September 29, 2003.
10. Ironically, the only real chance the Democrats have in 2004 is being stronger on national security than the Republicans. Because they've opposed the war in Iraq, they have to do this by saying its a separate issue to the war on terror, and prove they'll deal with that problem better. This is credible to people who don't see the two as connected (which, by common sense, they ostensibly are), but to everyone else seems dishonest. Any credible strategy for dealing with the terrorism threat which goes beyond Chirac and Annan's idealistic "help the poor" is increasingly having to be predicated on American force - after all, what message did the U.N. send when they pulled out of Iraq following attacks on their personnel? Black Hawk Down eat your heart out.