The hollow Clark boomlet

Posted: Sep 15, 2003 12:00 AM

Call him "General Chutzpah." Former Gen. Wesley Clark, perhaps soon-to-be a Democratic presidential candidate, is riding high on his prescience about the difficulties of the current Iraq war. But he utterly lacked prescience about his own war, in Kosovo in 1999. It is just one reason why -- as a political commodity -- there is probably less than meets the eye to the telegenic general.

Back then, Clark was the NATO supreme commander and confident that the threat of bombing would make Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic buckle and relinquish plans to cleanse the Serb province of Kosovo of its Albanians. If Clark had been a TV pundit during the Kosovo war -- which he became afterward -- he would no doubt have subjected his own handiwork to his earnest, know-it-all tsk-tsking.

President Clinton believed, like Clark, that Milosevic would back down immediately. So, he began a limp NATO bombing campaign, and when that didn't work, he had nothing to fall back on except more of a limp NATO bombing campaign. Ivo H. Daalder and Michael E. O'Hanlon write in their account of the war, "Winning Ugly": "NATO did not expect a long war. Worse, it did not even prepare for the possibility."

To Clark's credit, he pushed for ground troops, but that was a nonstarter, because no one in Washington thought it worth the risk in a war that had little connection to the American national interest. Clark has criticized Iraq as a "war of choice." But Kosovo was even more so, conceived as a splendid little humanitarian war that would infuse NATO with new life. No one even bothered to try to argue that Milosevic constituted an "imminent threat" to the United States -- Clark's standard for the Iraq war.

Things turned out OK, of course. But 1 million refugees later, and only because one of Clark's subordinates, Gen. Michael C. Short, did an end run around him to institute an aggressive bombing campaign against Belgrade. Andrew Bacevich writes in "American Empire": "Clark found his control over ongoing operations eroding. Rather than the theater commander, he became hardly more than a kibitzer." The military brass blamed Clark for helping drag the United States into a near-fiasco, and he was effectively fired at the conclusion of the war.

Thus, the beginning of Clark's TV career. Clark backers with visions of Ike dancing in their heads should realize that Clark isn't famous as a heroic war general so much as he is as a smooth TV pundit. Clark has other limits. Although his biography is impressive, he has no obvious appeal to any Democratic constituency, not the unions, the minorities, the feminists or the doves (owned by Howard Dean).

Then there is Clark's personality, which turned off many of his Army colleagues who considered him arrogant and self-involved. Reviewing Clark's memoir in the online magazine Slate, Deborah Dickerson notes its "feigned artlessness, self-congratulation, stolen credit, wild contortions of ass-covering, and Amen-corner banalities tossed off like gems of Talmudic brilliance."

Most importantly, Clark's foreign-policy thinking is bunk. He is a former general who mindlessly wants to fight his last war. He has criticized Bush for losing international support by not fighting the war in Afghanistan through NATO and not indicting Osama bin Laden as a war criminal - presumably because we fought Kosovo through NATO and indicted Milosevic. But no one has seriously questioned the legitimacy of the Afghan war or our pursuit of the unindicted bin Laden.

Clark, like other Democrats, has scored Bush for not working through the United Nations in the Iraq war. But sometimes the United Nations just isn't willing to go along, and the United States must act anyway. Clark should know. When it seemed the U.N. Security Council wouldn't endorse the Kosovo war because of Russia's opposition, the Clinton administration bypassed the United Nations.

Clark apparently has a selective memory. And that happens to be the one quality that the Democratic field - with several candidates running away from their pro-war, pro-USA Patriot Act votes - already has in ample supply.