Clark Prepares For New Combat

For a man disparaged by Republicans as a “weak” candidate, Wesley Clark provoked hysteria on the right when he finally announced that he would run for President. Conspiracy theories cropped up like noxious weeds, along with gutter attacks on this decorated general’s personality, integrity and even his sanity.

While conservatives often proclaim their reverence for the nation’s uniform, the right’s respect for veterans who have devoted life and career to country now seems rather selective. They didn’t hesitate for one moment to denigrate a man who gave 34 years to the United States Army, simply for daring to declare himself a Democrat and a candidate for the Presidency.

In media across the spectrum, Mr. Clark was simultaneously portrayed as a sap for the nefarious Clintons and a schemer of overweening ambition. He was painted as both a patsy for war criminals and a hothead who almost started a war with the Russians. He has been bushwhacked with exaggeration in every publication from The Nation to the American Spectator to The New York Times .

On his first outing, Mr. Clark provided his adversaries an easy target when he made a typical novice error: He told the truth about a complex problem. Specifically, he confessed to ambivalence about the proper way to deal with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. That led some of his more eager critics to declare his candidacy almost ruined only days after he declared himself. On the ABC News Web site, an anonymous Democrat wailed in “despair and anger.” That single moment of vacillation, it was said, could even “define” the former NATO Supreme Commander-as if he had said and done nothing else in his 58 years.

What did Mr. Clark utter to provoke such silly overreaction? He acknowledged that the resolution on Iraq confronted Senators with a difficult decision. They could vote no-and embolden Saddam to block the U.N. inspectors from returning to Baghdad. Or they could vote yes-and offer George W. Bush a “blank check” to wage an unwise and unjustified war.

“At the time, I probably would have voted for it, but I think that’s too simple a question,” he explained. “I don’t know if I would have or not. I’ve said it both ways because when you get into this, what happens is you have to put yourself in a position-on balance, I probably would have voted for it.” But his purpose in voting for the resolution, as he also explained, would have been to build “leverage for a U.N.-based solution.” He would have fought for a resolution similar to one supported by some Democrats, requiring the President to seek further approval before invading.

Later, Mr. Clark revised himself again, telling reporters that Howard Dean was correct to oppose the war resolution. “I would never have voted for this war,” he said. “There was no imminent threat. This was not a case of pre-emptive war …. I would have voted for the right kind of leverage to get a diplomatic solution, an international solution to the challenge of Saddam Hussein.”

These remarks damaged Mr. Clark. He sounded like an amateur. As should be obvious from their coverage of George W. Bush, many journalists and pundits prefer false confidence to honest doubt.

Still, there can be little doubt about Mr. Clark’s basic approach to security policy, or his deep differences with the President. He has outlined their disagreement many times. In dealing with Saddam, he wrote in a prescient essay for CNN last October, the United States must act “multilaterally, with friends and allies, with every possible effort to avoid the appearance of yet another Christian and Jewish stab at an Islamic country, with force as a last resort, and with a post-conflict plan in place to assure that the consequences of our action do not supercharge the al-Qaeda recruiting machine. It’s not just about winning a war-it’s also about winning the peace.”

As for his nascent campaign, there are plenty of pertinent complaints. He dithered for months before deciding to run, but didn’t develop any platform on domestic issues during those prolonged deliberations. He has expressed progressive opinions on affirmative action and health care-but is unprepared to speak about capital punishment and gun control, let alone the budget and the economy.

Rarely, however, is press speculation proved false as swiftly as the manic predictions of doom for the Clark candidacy. Four days after his “bad day,” the first new polls since his debut were published. Those surveys showed him leading the Democratic field, with the USA Today /Gallup/CNN poll placing him well ahead of his nearest Democratic rivals-and a few points ahead of the sinking President.

So the “liberal general” may yet have a fair opportunity to present himself to the American people. For the moment, at least, most Americans are far more interested in him than in the media’s opinions of him.