The latest Democrat in the race is Gen. Wesley Clark, Rhodes scholar, former supreme allied commander of NATO, and ubiquitous TV presence before and during the Iraq war. General Clark recommends himself to his party as the man who can take down President Bush. His supposed strength comes partly from his impressive résumé, partly from his aura of toughness. Robert Bork (not the conservative jurist, but an art historian in Iowa City) told The New York Times that Mr. Clark seemed both “progressive and macho.”
Former President Clinton apparently agrees, reportedly telling friends that General Clark is one of the “two stars” of the Democratic Party (the other is Senator Clinton), while Alan Dershowitz-the only man in America who gives more interviews than Charles Schumer-calls General Clark “Bill’s kind of guy.” But after General Clark’s debut, Bill may want to reconsider these endorsements; certainly Mr. Clinton’s friends can want no stain on his reputation from unfortunate comparisons.
General Clark threw his hat in the ring last week. On Sept. 18, he gave a 90-minute interview to four reporters on his jet. He wrestled with the issue of the Iraq war. If he had been in Congress, would he have voted to fight it or not? “I probably would have voted for” the Congressional resolution authorizing an invasion of Iraq, he said, but added, “I think that’s too simple a question.” Then he said, “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.” Rhodes scholars don’t have to put themselves in positions when they chat with their dons, but leaders occasionally have to. General Clark should get used to it.
The general, be it noted, was not in the position of Arnold Schwarzenegger, asked to comment on a 25-year-old interview in Oui , or Trent Lott, asked to justify a remark about a half-century-old Presidential campaign of Strom Thurmond. General Clark was being asked his opinion of a military action that began this spring, and that he kibitzed 24/7. Shouldn’t he know his own mind?
The prospect seems to flummox him. “Mary, help!” he called to Mary Jacoby, his press secretary, who came back from her seat at the front of the jet to untangle his thoughts. It is good to know that Ms. Jacoby is nearby. One hopes she will stay close to the general should he ever make it to the Oval Office, to help him whenever he has to put himself in a position.
A moment later, General Clark tried to feed off the anti-war energy of Dr. Howard Dean, while of course keeping his distance (else why not just vote for the doc?). “I think he’s right,” General Clark said of Mr. Dean, continuing that “in retrospect, we should never have gone in [to Iraq] … on the other hand, [Mr. Dean] wasn’t inside the bubble of those who were exposed to the information.” What is General Clark’s attitude to information? Did Mr. Dean make the right decision because he lacked information, while General Clark made the wrong one because he had it? Where’s Mary?
On the stump, the veil of uncertainty surrounding General Clark’s views lifted, though that did not improve them. “I never would have voted for war,” he told an audience in Iowa. “What I would have voted for is leverage.” Leverage is good. It would have been great to have a line to Saddam’s shrink, or his medium, who could have told him, “Hold elections! Open your arsenals! Free the Kurds!” But sometimes leverage doesn’t lever. And then what?
General Clark was only warming up. “Americans know in their hearts that you don’t make our country safe by erecting walls to keep others out. You make us safer by building bridges to reach out.” What is worse-the witless rhetorical parallelism, or the meager thought that it seeks to decorate? What happens in wartime-in Clark-speak, when enemies reach in to tear buildings down? “We also have to recognize that force should be used only as a last resort, when all other means have failed.” But what do we do when enemies use force as a first resort, as their means to victory?
The glittering façade masking dither, the appearance of complexity that gives way to pandering: So far Gen. Wesley Clark resembles another Democratic general-politician, George McClellan-second in his class at West Point, nicknamed the “Young Napoleon” until he bungled the peninsular campaign in the Civil War and ran on a Peace Now platform against Abraham Lincoln in 1864. McClellan, in the words of military historian John Keegan, was “vain, vainglorious, opinionated, worldly, self-satisfied, ostentatiously busy-but also dilatory and self-doubting. He was a splendid organizer, on the principle of doing everything himself and delegating to nobody, but his gifts were for solving problems presented to him by unsatisfactory subordinates, not by active and contentious enemies. He was a great fault-finder [yet he] found no fault with himself. If he were to be compared with other famous American generals, it could be said that he resembled MacArthur in his arrogance and George C. Marshall in his hauteur, but that he lacked … the former’s dynamism and the latter’s strength of character.”
The Republican in me says the Democrats are welcome to Gen. Wesley Clark. Yet the American in me wants him to be better, and them to be better served, for the simple reason that the Terror War is likely to last much longer than the Civil War. Even if the Democrats lose next year, they will win soon enough, and the Terror War, like the Cold War, will have to be fought by both parties. Therefore, we need men and women in both parties who understand its gravity and who, whatever they think of the tactics or the domestic agendas of their rivals, will not fecklessly cut and run if they reach the White House.
Why should liberal Democrats interest themselves in the Terror War? One reason I would think is national liberation. Over two decades of political gladiatorship, I have often found liberals taking that side of controversial issues. They wanted the black majority of South Africa to have equal rights. They lost no love on pro-American strong men like Pinochet, Marcos or the Shah. And whatever they felt about the Cold War, they didn’t seem sad when Communism lost. Leonard Bernstein conducted a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth in Berlin to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The Terror War has already burst open jails, real and metaphorical, in two countries. Men in Afghanistan can shave their beards, women who wish to can show their faces. Iraqi soccer players are no longer tortured for missing goals, Kurdish children are no longer stuffed into mass graves.
Indifference to the fate of dusky peoples used to be the property of the right, especially its satirists. The classic expressions of such sentiments are the African farces of Evelyn Waugh, Scoop and Black Mischief , filled with comic savages and their jabbering intelligentsia. (Waugh’s white people don’t come off any better, but it his depiction of the Other that stings.) The Tory view of the world acknowledged that people and cultures are different, and that they cannot be homogenized by mere decrees. But in its extreme form it treated different races as different species, and consigned some to eternal darkness. Liberals should not want to be in that role.
Liberal Democrats’ chief interest in the Terror War, however, should be what it means for us. Ordinary Americans, including ordinary liberal Americans, are precisely what the terrorists and their patrons hate most in the world. The Islamist utopia has no room for minorities, deviants, independent women, religious freedom or intellectual expression. Islamists enforce their tastes with murder on their ascent to power, and with capital punishment once they have achieved it. Secular terrorists in the Muslim world may drop a few clauses of this agenda. Iraqi women could wear skirts; they just couldn’t speak, vote or read.
Paint John Ashcroft as black as you please, and stick demon horns on his head. He will not murder his enemies. If his party loses, he will go home. That is why the proper arena for liberal Democrats who quarrel with him is the ballot box. Our enemies in the Terror War-their enemies-have to be met on the battlefield.
There is a program for General Clark, or for whoever would like it.