It was wholly a pleasure to receive your inquiry -- or was it more of a dare? -- asking if I intend to answer Wesley Clark's guest article in last Wednesday's paper demanding that I apologize for having supported the war in Iraq. ("A stubborn stance," Voices Page, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 27, 2013.)
I have refrained from responding to the general for the same reason sportsmen devised that rule about sitting ducks.
But your question is fair enough, and now that the Lord hath delivered him into my hands, it would seem less than grateful if I didn't respond to the general's personally challenging me by name -- "Paul, what say you?"
I'd say I had no idea the general and I were on a first-name basis.
I'd say I'm grateful to him for giving me so much grist for today's column.
I'd say that over the past decade I must have written tens of thousands of words about Iraq, the war there, its origins and conduct and the burdens of empire in general that America has not sought but has had to shoulder.
I'd say that much of what I wrote about the war in Iraq was surely wrong; I can only hope some of it was right.
I'd say the war in Iraq, or the one in the Persian Gulf before it, is not the first time an innately anti-imperialist, instinctively isolationist country has had to face the realization that this is one world after all. And that what happens in lands once so safely far-away -- in Europe, in the Mideast, on the Korean peninsula -- can affect us all too directly.
Being shaken awake by events can be a sobering experience. But a September 11, 2001 -- much like a December 7, 1941 -- will have that effect. Much like someone turning glaring lights and blaring sirens on a sleeping giant. When he awakens, there may be hell to pay -- all around.
I'd say the late great George F. Kennan, the grand old man of American diplomacy, had a point years ago when he delivered a celebrated address on foreign policy to a large and distinguished gathering. He compared democracy "to one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin: he lies there in his comfortable primeval mud and pays little attention to his environment; he is slow to wrath -- in fact, you practically have to whack his tail off to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed; but, once he grasps this, he lays about him with such a blind determination that he not only destroys his adversary but largely wrecks his native habitat."
I'd say that, for examples of Ambassador Kennan's thesis, see the divisive debates on the home front in the midst of the Korean War, and, more recently, the rancorous political atmosphere in this country before the Surge turned the tide of war in Iraq--an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust that General Clark did little to dispel but further inflamed.
I'd say that by largely ignoring Saddam Hussein's continuous violations of the terms of the agreement that ended the first Gulf War, we made a second one certain. Evil ignored is violence invited.
I'd say that war is a well established disease endemic to and inseparable from the human species. And any student of it should strive, like Hippocrates, to trace its familiar course from first intimation to crisis to resolution -- happy or sad, cure or death. History, certainly military history, is pathography. But there will always be those who, like General Clark, contend that war can be avoided without risking any consequences, some of them even more adverse.
I'd say General Clark's approach to the war in Iraq may be more a product of naivete about the human condition than a realistic comprehension of it -- and of the essentially tragic nature of statecraft, which may consist of choosing the best of poor alternatives. As it did in Iraq and does today in Afghanistan.
I'd say the great simplifiers of the world, whether the Malcolm Gladwells of journalism's whirl or the Wesley Clarks of the think tank/academic/MSNBC world, would have a point if only the world were simple.
I'd say I cannot honestly apologize for having supported the Surge in Iraq, which the general once described as a combination of "misunderstanding and desperation," declaring it had little chance of success. ("Wesley Clark: Bush's 'surge' will backfire"--The Independent, January 7, 2007.) Naturally, it succeeded.
I'd say that the general was scarcely alone in his assessment of the Surge at the time. His was almost conventional wisdom. It was certainly echoed by various Democratic luminaries, including a future secretary of state named Hillary Clinton and a then-senator from Illinois named Barack Obama.
I'd say that, to our president's credit, he would later adopt much the same strategy in Afghanistan that he had opposed in Iraq. The man learns.
I'd say I wish I could be as certain about only a few things as General Clark is about so many, including what would have happened if Iraq's Saddam Hussein had been left free to threaten his neighbors in a volatile part of the world and terrorize his own people.
Just as Slobodan Milosevic went unchallenged for years in the Balkans, and Bashar al-Assad in Syria -- with tragic results for millions.
I'd say it is a tragedy when constancy of purpose in American foreign policy is replaced by ad-hoc "resets," vision by expedience, decision by delay, and the principled course by the politically popular.
I'd say it is a rare if not miraculous gift to be able to rewind history and see so clearly what would have happened if we hadn't stopped Saddam Hussein's continued attacks and depredations. I had no idea Gen. Clark possessed such a gift. I still don't.
I'd say I don't miss Saddam Hussein's presence in a world that is sufficiently troubled without him, thank you.
I'd say Gen. Clark's judgments tend to be more bold than trustworthy.
I'd say I've said more than enough for today.
I'd say that on balance I prefer the attitude of another general -- an ancient one named Thucydides, whose history of the Peloponnesian War has yet to be equaled, and who observed at one point that "ignorance is bold, and knowledge is reserved."
But what would I know, being only an
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