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General talking points

The first half of Gen. Wesley Clark’s new book, “Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism, and the American Empire,” is dull. But once it gets going, it’s as searing an indictment of George Bush’s foreign policy as any tome out there. By Fred Kaplan.
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The first half of Gen. Wesley Clark’s new book, “Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism, and the American Empire,” is every bit as dull and drably wonkish as its title. Too bad, because it runs the risk that no one will read it at all. And that would be a shame, especially for those seeking signs about whether to vote for him, because once the book gets going, it’s as searing an indictment of George W. Bush’s foreign policy as any tome out there.

InsertArt(2028928)BUT THERE’S plenty that you don’t want to read. So, here Slate offers a guide to the general’s good parts.

Pages 1-90: A humdrum rehash of Gulf War II. Do not be misled by the breathless you-are-there opener: “March 20, 2003, early morning, somewhere over Iraq. The F-117 pilots checked their systems …” There’s nothing remotely insiderish about the chronicle to come. If you watched the war on CNN and read a handful of postmortems in the newsweeklies, you’ll learn little new here.

Page 91: The first sign of light flickers. Clark tells of returning to his Pentagon haunts in September 2002, a few months before the Gulf War would begin, and learning to his disappointment that little thought was being given to postwar matters. Clark writes: ” ‘Not a popular subject on the third floor [where Defense Department policy is decided by civilian leaders],’ I was informed.” The use of brackets is horribly inelegant; it would be nice to know who — or at least what rank of person — “informed” him. Still, it is intriguing that the fatal flaws in postwar planning — or, the lack thereof — were recognized so early on by at least some people in the Pentagon.Page 92: Clark recites the now-standard critique that Bush’s postwar reconstruction had “no program legitimized by international authority.” By the next page, he takes the administration to task for “jettisoning” more than “fifty years of post-World War II experience,” which “pointed toward the advantages of operating within the framework of alliances and multinational institutions.” As a capper, he notes that even Donald Rumsfeld’s vision of military “transformation” — the precision-strike weapons and air-ground coordination that led to such a rapid battlefield victory — “was not a new vision” but rather “the product of five U.S. presidents” and a “process that actually accelerated after the 1991 Gulf War,” i.e., (though Clark doesn’t say so explicitly) after the Democrats swept Bush’s father out of the White House. This supports Al Franken’s description of the victorious U.S. armed forces as “Clinton’s military.”

At this point, Clark finds his bearings, homes in on his targets (Bush, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, the whole lot of them), and blasts them to bits with the precision of an F-16 dropping JDAM smart bombs on a squadron of Republican Guards.

MISSED CHANCES Page 113, 124: Going after Saddam Hussein was “a hobby-horse” for Bush’s security team that drew attention away from the more vital task of going after terrorists. Letting Osama Bin Laden slip across the mountains of Tora Bora was one of “many missed chances.”

Page 130: A revelation:

As I went back through the Pentagon in November 2001, one of the senior military staff officers had time for a chat. Yes, we were still on track for going against Iraq, he said. But there was more. This was being discussed as part of a five-year campaign plan, he said, and there were a total of seven countries, beginning with Iraq, then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia, and Sudan. … He said it with reproach — with disbelief, almost — at the breadth of the vision. I moved the conversation away, for this was not something I wanted to hear. And it was not something I wanted to see moving forward, either.

A few questions come to mind: Who was this senior staff officer? If that can’t be revealed, couldn’t Clark at least tell us how senior he was? Why did Clark want to “move the conversation away”? Why didn’t he pursue it? Why didn’t he mention anything about this “chat” during his wartime CNN commentary? Still, it’s shuddersome that the Bush administration was planning such a broad imperial sweep (Somalia and Sudan?) so insouciantly just weeks after 9/11.

Pages 131, 148: Clark goes after Bush’s doctrine of “preventive war.” It was “an idea that the United States had consistently rejected for itself and condemned in others,” and it was “likely to make us the enemy” in the eyes of much of the world.

Pages 175, 178: The neocon concept of a “New American Empire,” Clark goes on, is not only impractical, given the size and training of the U.S. military, but also contrary to “the principles of national self-determination.” The idea also ignores the fact that American power and prosperity since World War II have been “sustained not by classical empire but rather by an interlocking web of international institutions and arrangements that protected and promoted American interests and shared the benefits, costs, and risks with others.”


However, there is much evidence that Clark’s endorsement of a foreign policy based on shoring up alliances and seeking the legitimacy of international institutions is authentic and long-standing. Clark, after all, was NATO supreme allied commander and, in that post, coordinated the 1999 bombing campaign over Kosovo. In his 2001 book, Waging Modern War, he details the frustrations of fighting a war through an alliance — the endless squabbles over tactics, strategy, even which targets to strike. Yet the result — the success of a unified alliance — brought “significant strategic benefits” beyond mere military victory, benefits, he wrote at the time, “that future political and military leaders must recognize.” His earlier book concluded: “Shared risks, shared burdens, shared benefits” — it’s not only a good motto for NATO, it’s also a good prescription for America’s role in the world.

Given the mess that Bush has made for himself, it might also be a good campaign slogan for Gen. Clark.

Fred Kaplan writes the “War Stories” column for Slate.