Friday, September 19, 2003

The Challenge for Clark-- and for all of us

Wesley Clark is a very bright and complex thinker who must adapt to dealing with simple-minded journalists looking for sensationalist headlines. The current state of journalism may be the greatest factor in dumbing down debate in this country and discouraging our best people from seeking public office. The rules of the game do not tolerate meaningful distinctions no matter how logical and reasonable they might be. Especially in our media driven society, politics favors simple thoughts, black-and-white thinking and soundbites.

This is the environment which allows someone like George W. Bush to first be elected and then be perceived as a strong and decisive leader by most of the electorate. He keeps it simple, which for him isn’t really a choice. You are with him or against him; you’re on the side of righteousness or evil; you invade a country and topple a regime or concede defeat in the war on terror.

Conservatives viewed Clinton as indecisive because he not only had the ability to see all sides, his thought process generally demanded that he do so. Although his communication skills were phenomenal, he lacked Bush’s certitude. Of course, to progressives, Bush’s certitude is seen as obnoxious, close-minded hubris. Still, many of us, even progressives, are too quick to find fault when someone else’s thinking doesn’t fit into a ready-made framework with which we are comfortable. This is the environment in which Wesley Clark has entered.

There has been much made over a conversation Clark had with four journalists Thursday night. The headlines read: Clark 'Probably' Would Have Backed War and Clark Says He Would Have Voted for War. But is that what he said?

The Post (and the only actual attributed quote in this passage is the last sentence):

[He] "probably" would have voted for the congressional resolution last fall authorizing war, as he charged out into the presidential campaign field with vague plans to fix the economy and the situation in Iraq…. "That having been said, I was against the war as it emerged because there was no reason to start it when we did.

The Times:

“I want to clarify — we're moving quickly here," Ms. Jacoby said. "You said you would have voted for the resolution as leverage for a U.N.-based solution."

"Right," General Clark responded. "Exactly."

Compare that statement to his supposed “flip-flop”:

"I would have never voted for war," Clark told Reuters before delivering a foreign policy speech at the University of Iowa. "I'm a soldier. I understand what war's about, but I would have voted for the right kind of leverage for the president to head off war and avoid it."

And again:

"Let's make one thing real clear, I would never have voted for this war," Clark said before a speech at the University of Iowa. "I've gotten a very consistent record on this. 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."

The simple-minded will cry “Word games!” They also seem to believe that the resolution voted on by Congress was a declaration of war. It was not. If you’ve never read it, you can do so now:

Joint Resolution to authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against Iraq.


This joint resolution may be cited as the `Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002'.


The Congress of the United States supports the efforts by the President to--

(1) strictly enforce through the United Nations Security Council all relevant Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq and encourages him in those efforts; and

(2) obtain prompt and decisive action by the Security Council to ensure that Iraq abandons its strategy of delay, evasion and noncompliance and promptly and strictly complies with all relevant Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.


(a) AUTHORIZATION- The President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to--

(1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and

(2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.

(b) PRESIDENTIAL DETERMINATION- In connection with the exercise of the authority granted in subsection (a) to use force the President shall, prior to such exercise or as soon thereafter as may be feasible, but no later than 48 hours after exercising such authority, make available to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President pro tempore of the Senate his determination that--

(1) reliance by the United States on further diplomatic or other peaceful means alone either (A) will not adequately protect the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq or (B) is not likely to lead to enforcement of all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq; and

(2) acting pursuant to this joint resolution is consistent with the United States and other countries continuing to take the necessary actions against international terrorist and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations, or persons who planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001….

Not a declaration of war. A blank check in the hands of a President bent on war? Maybe. However, it is also largely credited with providing Bush and Powell with the necessary leverage to achieve consensus on a UN Resolution that followed placing inspectors back in Iraq. If you were against the war, you may remember this being viewed by many as an indication that the more moderate Powell had achieved a victory over the Neocons and that war might be averted. No, didn’t happen, but look back at the press reports if you don’t remember that avoiding war seemed more possible at that point. In fact, what if Blair had not been able to bring the UK along for the ride?

The question to Clark—a hypothetical about whether to tie a President’s hands or give him bargaining leverage. As a candidate, he probably thought what position he would want to find himself to better negotiate a suitable outcome. (Although, with Clark as President, this particular resolution would have never been presented for consideration.) He may have remembered being asked to wage a war with it declared up front that there would be no ground troops. Not even a possibility for the enemy to worry about in their calculations.

So why did I call what Clark said Thursday night to be non-pandering straight talk, even in light of the clarifications? Because many in the Democratic base have come to equate the resolution passed in October as supporting the war and by trying to draw this distinction he ran the risk of having people make quick assumptions which were overly simplistic and simply incorrect. Even though he also said this:

Still, asked about Dr. Dean's criticism of the war, General Clark responded: "I think he's right. That in retrospect we should never have gone in there. I didn't want to go in there either. But on the other hand, he wasn't inside the bubble of those who were exposed to the information."

You can tell he’s not a politician because he passed up an opportunity to slam any of his rivals. He’s complex enough to understand why all of them may have taken the position that they did, although we will never really know how Howard Dean would have voted had he been in Congress, and perhaps he doesn’t either.

As voters and citizens we can withhold our snap judgments based on what the corporate media tells us is true until we examine the facts and reach well thought-out conclusions, or we can perpetuate a black-and-white political world in which cynical powerbrokers find simpletons like the current President who won’t go off on their own and have a complex thought.

For more analysis see Chronicles of an Anti-Apathetic and Josh Marshall

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