|The smart money doesn't give the leading Democratic contenders much of a chance against W. Maybe no one has a shot. But there's one guy who can make it interesting.
OKAY, LET'S LEAVE ASIDE the question of which party in American politics represents the interests of the Philistines and which the Israelites, as well as the question of whether a president who dons a warrior's togs for the sake of appearance can reasonably be compared to the mighty Goliath. Let's put aside value judgments and stick to strategy. The Democrats are sore afraid. The Republicans have control of the battlefield and stand nearly unchallenged, hurling foul oaths. They stand behind their champion, and until the Democrats muster the courage to challenge him, the Republicans can plot their destruction outright. But who will make such a challenge? The Republican champion is, after all, the Commander in Chief. He has at his command vast armies. He has claimed victory in two wars. Eight men and one woman have signaled their readiness to join the fight, but, as it says in the Bible, the champion brandishes a sword, a spear, and a shield, while growling, through Karl Rove: "Am I a dog, that thou comest to me with Lieberman, and Edwards, and Graham, and Gephardt, and Dean, and Sharpton, and Mosley Braun, and Kucinich, and even Kerry? I curse ye, by your gods."
And the Democrats, when they saw this man, fled from him and wondered where they would find a warrior of their own, a man the Republican's equal in blood and his superior in vision and mercy.
They wondered who might challenge George W. Bush and be their champion.
WE ALL KNOW WHAT HAPPENED on September 11, 2001. It was the day that war came to our shores, and so it was the day that changed this country, if not the world. And of course we all remember where we were when we realized what had happened, not only to the Twin Towers and the Pentagon but to us . . . when we acknowledged, if only to ourselves, that things would never be the same. For instance, General Wesley K. Clark (Ret.), former Commander in Chief (or CinC) of the United States European Command and former Supreme Allied Commander (SACEUR) of NATO, remembers that he was in Little Rock, on the twenty-fifth floor of the Stephens Building, where he was working as a consultant for Stephens Inc., an investment bank. He'd retired the year before as a four-star general. He'd written a book on his experiences prosecuting NATO's 1999 war in Kosovo called Waging Modern War. He was serving on numerous corporate boards. He was making real money for the first time in his life. He was back in the town where he'd done most of his growing up. Hell, for the first time since he went off to West Point in 1962, he and his wife, Gert, had a real home, one outside the fluid environs of the U. S. Army. For thirty-four years, he'd been serving his country by studying, teaching, planning, or making war, and now he was finally putting war behind him. People still addressed him as General Clark and called him sir, but more and more he was able to reconceive the notion of public service along the lines of "making $40 million and giving it away, like George Soros." Then the planes hit New York and Washington and the Stephens Building in Little Rock was evacuated. General Wesley Clark (Ret.) was out in the street, along with everyone else, wondering what was going on. CNN?which had hired the general as an expert analyst in matters of war and national security?was calling, but, as he says now, "I didn't know anything. No one did. Was there some kind of biological agent on the plane that was now spreading in the wind? Did they have a bomb? Did they have the bomb? Was the entire country under attack? What I remember from that day was fear. Everywhere. We were in Little Rock, and they closed the building. . . ."
So, yes, the general remembers September 11. But he also remembers September 13, because on that day, as the shock began to wear off, some people in the ruling party started figuring out that it might not be such a bad thing if Americans were sore afraid. That was the day the general received a phone call from a friend of his, a Republican in Arkansas who'd heard talk that the general was contemplating running for office in his home state as a Democrat. "You going to come over to our side now?" is what the general remembers his friend saying. "Because there is no political future in the Democratic party. The American people are never going to trust the Democrats with national security now. The Democrats are done. The Democrats are over."
And so they are, unless . . .
BUT WAIT A SECOND. He's a general, for God's sake. Democrats are supposed to distrust generals. Generals are supposed to distrust Democrats. Military values are supposed to be antithetical to civilian values and vice versa. The general says it himself: "In the Clinton administration, any use of military force was regarded as a failure." Are the Democrats such a lost tribe that they could come to count on a man of war?a man who is virtually the embodiment of military force?to muster their challenge? Are they so hapless and defeated that they would pin their hopes upon a man who has known nothing but war for thirty-four of his fifty-eight years?
This is not to say that the general is not a nice man. He is a very nice man, earnest, eager to please, even kind of goofy, in the way of retired military men who still say things like "with it" and "neat." He just knows very little of civilian life, and even on returning home to Little Rock, he depended on an old rich man named Rollie Remmel to show him around, to introduce him to people and take him duck hunting. The general is a pretty good hunter, as might be expected, and typically gets his allotment of five birds with five shots. But old Rollie's an ebullient fellow, and when his ebullience rises up concerning the general's proficiency as a hunter, this is what he says: "But, now, hunting men! That's real hunting! And [the general] excels at it!" The general doesn't like this kind of talk and has to shush Rollie up, but that's the kind of life he's led. Look into his eyes. They're not eyes so much as scanning devices?not quite predatory, no, but sort of an odd combination of jittery and calm, of patient and imploring, alert and exhausted, set back there in the hollows and shadows of his lean, handsome, deliberate face.
He gets his hair cut every two weeks. He swims every day he can, even when he's on the road, and when he can't he runs. Indeed, from the general's head to the general's toes, there's no part of him absent the imprint of his overarching will: He's taut and springy, with wide and slightly hunched shoulders that flare from the constriction of his narrow waist. He is in the habit of sticking his hands in his pockets, especially when he's making a speech, but even his nonchalance is purposeful. People at his speeches can be heard to remark, "He's small" when he glides to the stump, but he's not really; he's around five ten and not so much diminutive as compressed, like a man who never exhales. His stride is at once jaunty and athletic and somewhat artificial, like the stride of a man who has devoted time to teaching himself how to walk . . . as, in fact, he has, after getting shot four times in Vietnam. Taught himself to walk again, without a limp, despite the fact that a quarter of his calf muscle was gone; taught himself to shake hands manfully, despite the loss of the muscle around his right thumb. He had to learn those things because, as his wife says, he was desperately afraid of being profiled out of the Army. Can't be a general if you're a gimp. The only thing he couldn't do was teach himself how to play basketball again, because no matter how many hours he spent alone in the gym practicing his foul shots, he couldn't stabilize the ball. . . .
And so, yes, Wesley K. Clark is what the people of the United States of America generally like their presidents to be?or at least feel comfortable with their presidents being: a veteran. But there's more to it than that, of course; he's more than just a veteran, a guy who heard the call of his country and marched and drilled and slogged and shot people and got shot at and did his time and opened up a nice little law practice somewhere. He chose the Army. He was offered scholarships everywhere, but he chose West Point, where he finished first in his class as a plebe, first in his class as a senior, and went off to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. He loved the Army. He'll tell you he loved it: "I loved it too much! I loved it except for two days?the day I got shot and the day I was told I had to retire." Yes, he'll tell you that, too. He'll say that in his speeches to the adoring crowds: "I was fired." After he won the war in Kosovo. After he stayed the genocidal hand of Slobodan Milosevic. After he served as the very fulcrum of the tension between military and civilian that characterized the Clinton era. The Army broke his heart, but only because he loved it so much?and, anyway, that's the deal with the Army. Listen: "Right now, the military is the only action agency in the United States government, so any time anyone wants something done, the military is being called upon to do it. But that's the trouble. The military knocked things down in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's very good at knocking things down. But now we have to build things, and the military's not very good at building things. It's not about building things. It's about allowing what you've built to be destroyed. It's about allowing people you love to be killed."
IN ITS 227-YEAR HISTORY, the United States of America has elected twelve generals as president. The last, of course, was Ike, and since then, the generals who have involved themselves in presidential politics have all either scared people or, once they stopped scaring people, come across as faintly ridiculous, like cats without claws. Wesley Clark is neither scary nor ridiculous, so he's starting with a leg up. He's also smart, handsome, well-spoken, personable, driven, organized, disciplined, passionate, courageous, fair-minded, loyal, and fairly well-known from his job as a commentator on CNN's war beat. He looks good on TV. He weighs his judgments carefully. He speaks four languages and wrote his own book. He was on the debate team at West Point. He has been married to the same woman since 1967. He has a son. He plays golf. He has succeeded in nearly everything he has ever done; he has beaten nearly everyone he has ever competed against. He has never held elective office, which is both a plus and a minus. More to the point, he has never had to endure the rigors of a campaign, which are different from the rigors of a war: They're personal. He has never had to ask people for money; he has never had to put together an organization. He knows next to nothing of the civilian world. He was able to outmaneuver Slobodan Milosevic?or maybe simply pound him into submission with B-2's?but he was outmaneuvered in turn by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Hugh Shelton and Defense Secretary William Cohen. He won a war but lost his job because people at the Pentagon, well, hated him. He was considered too political for the military, but in the end he was a military success and a political failure. Right now, he has mystique both as a general and as an outsider, but he loses some of each as soon as he becomes another scrounging candidate. So far, he has outlined his principles but not his platform, and his principles?shorn of mystique?are not so different from Howard Dean's. The longer he holds off on declaring his political intentions, the more he runs the risk of appearing indecisive or insincere. The sooner he does declare his intentions, the sooner he winds up in the same category as Dean and the rest of them, whose ambitions have become a national punch line. He is in a position that is both enviable and impossible. He should be considered nothing else but a long shot.
And yet . . . he has worked very hard at his noncandidacy, and as a noncandidate he has felt what every candidate dreams of: the surge. He has felt entire rooms tilting his way; he has felt himself being received, by complete strangers, and his ideas finding not just agreement but belief. What it feels like, he says, is what it used to feel like when he sat in the big stone chapel at West Point and the choir sang one of his favorite hymns, "God of Grace and God of Glory," and "there was a certain chord that just resonated. The whole place vibrated, and that's what it feels like sometimes in front of a crowd. What you say resonates, and they feel it, and so do you."
Tonight, the surge comes while he speaks to a crowd convened by the Carnegie Council in New York. The crowd is very old, so it must be full of Democrats. They are owlish, and they trickle into the big room slowly, lucky to be trickling at all. They are still settling in their seats when General Wesley K. Clark (Ret.) bounds up to the lectern in his blue suit, his smartly pinstriped blue-and-white shirt, his red tie, his?in this room?almost discordant air of incessant youth. He might not be a candidate, but he looks like one, for he immediately thrusts his left hand in his pocket and gestures with the right in the manner that is said to be "Kennedyesque," after the first American politician to elevate boyishness to a political signature. He talks very fast, but speed is his style. "I have an important announcement to make this afternoon," he says to an audience that is poised to hear an announcement of his candidacy. "I am not going to use my prepared lecture." He gets a laugh. He begins speaking of the consequences of America's "incredible military machine." It was a machine that he helped build when he was in the Army, but it was also a machine that was being developed in a vacuum, for, with the cold war ending, the new world order was dissolving into chaos.
It was a chaos he had a chance to observe and experience firsthand. In 1994, he got a job as J-5 at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a job that put him in charge of strategic planning?writing war plans?for the Army. "On the third day that I was in the office, the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were killed. Three days later, on a Friday evening, [I was told], ?There has been an invasion of Rwanda. There was fighting in the streets of Kigali.' I said, ?Get me a map.' And so the guys produced a map, and people ran around in my office and said, ?Sir, there is a tribal conflict. There are these two groups. It's the Hutus and the Tutsis. No, wait a minute, let me go check that. It may be the Tutus and the Hutsis. . . .' The next morning, on Saturday morning, I went to a meeting with Secretary of Defense William Perry in his office. We were preparing for a trip to Korea. There was a little bit of urgency in that because it turned out that we were on the brink of going to war with North Korea. It seemed like they had a couple of atomic weapons, or might have them, and the president had said that wouldn't be permitted on the Korean Peninsula. . . . On Monday?this is actually my seventh day in the job as J-5?a guy came into my office, he tugged on my sleeve, and he said, ?Sir, I'm not supposed to tell you this, but I want you to know that there's a secret war plan being developed for Haiti.' I said, ?We're going to invade Haiti?' "
The United States invaded Haiti. The United States, however, wouldn't invade Rwanda, although Clark pushed his mentor, General John Shalikashvili, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to push for an intervention. Shalikashvili declined after Clark told him twenty thousand troops would be required, and as Clark says now, "I watched as we stood by as eight hundred thousand people were hacked to death by machete." The United States did, however, intervene to stop ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, with Clark, in the space between the Pentagon and the State Department, working to define, in military terms, the parameters of the peacekeeping mission negotiated by American diplomats. Four years later, in 1999, the United States intervened again, in Kosovo, when Slobodan Milosevic was driving 1.3 million ethnic Albanians from their homes, and this time Clark, by now a four-star general, ran the show. For seventy-eight days, the United States, in conjunction with NATO, bombed targets in Kosovo and Serbia, and when Milosevic finally withdrew his forces from Kosovo, victory had been accomplished without a single allied casualty. "It was an incredible victory," Clark says now, repeating the words that have become his mantra, both in print and on the stump. "NATO nations should have called it a victory, but they didn't. Because they couldn't call it a war, they couldn't call it a victory." He came home, in the summer of 2000, to a country that was at the "apex of its power and influence" in the world but so terminally self-involved that when Clark spoke to people, he found that many of them "didn't know that there had been a war in Kosovo, didn't even know there had been a fight." He visited a publisher in Washington and was told, "People really don't care about people like you anymore, generals and people in uniform and people in the armed forces."
That changed on 9/11. That country changed on 9/11. But what Clark asks tonight?what he feels compelled to ask in every speech he makes?is the question of what the country is changing to . . . what Americans are becoming, now that they've figured out, in Clark's words, "that national security means personal security." We can't just kill everybody, he says. "We better understand this about the war on terror: that it is not enough to take down states. We are not going to attack Germany; we're not even going to attack France. We need NATO. We need an alliance. We need to get these countries inside the camp, into the boat with us, so our war is their war." We need a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead of making "nation building" dirty words, we need a Cabinet-level post for nation building. Most of all, what we need is a new strategy, a new idea; we need to talk about a new strategy and a new idea. We need dialogue. And that is it; that is as far as Clark gets. The speech ends with him exhorting the crowd, and America, to start talking again.
There is a partial standing ovation?participation in which is limited, perhaps, by the number of people in the crowd who can actually manage to rise from their seats. The people who remarked, upon his entrance, "He's small" now turn to one another and remark, "He's a very good speaker," and then a white-haired man stands up and says, "General, you painted a very convincing picture of our problems. What can we do in 2004 to find a leader who will help solve these problems?" The crowd laughs; the general smiles aw-shucks-edly, then says that he's not ducking the question, but that "one of the most serious charges you can level against any man or woman is that he might have presidential aspirations. It's a guaranteed discreditor from serious dialogue." And yet it is now, at the very moment he is trying to rise above politics, that he appears the most overtly political; it's when he appears the most overtly political that he appears the most powerful. With his left hand still in his pocket, he ends the question-and-answer period by chopping the air with his right, speaking faster and faster and louder and louder, as he says, "There has been since 9/11 a chill on dialogue in this country. . . . You only have to listen to talk radio or watch Mike Savage on MSNBC, and you'll see the spirit of what's out there. You can't have a democracy when people don't get the facts and when people don't get the chance to agree or disagree. We've got to have a dialogue in this country . . . that is premised on an understanding that asking questions, demanding evidence, and holding people accountable is not unpatriotic, it's the duty of every American."
And then?ah, yes, here it is: the surge. The crowd begins standing?all of them this time?and applauding even before he stops speaking, and his voice, pugnacious and belligerently staccato, rises into and over theirs. It is upon the promise of such ringing moments as these that American politics is based, and yet this one is based on a fundamental misperception. The general comes away from this speech believing that he put himself across because he was attempting to further dialogue rather than his candidacy, and that ideas are more important than the people who espouse them. He is mistaken. The crowd tonight?this pacific old Democratic crowd?wasn't standing at the end in response to any idea other than the idea that this man might be running for president on their behalf; that he might be willing to not only start a dialogue but advance it while assuming its full cost; that war might be more necessary in the United States than it ever was in Iraq; and that if Wesley K. Clark runs for president, he?a general, after all?will have no choice but to wage it.
THE GENERAL IS AT PEACE. No, wait a second?that's not quite right. He's never at peace, has never been at peace, since he was almost four years old and his father died. The general is, um . . . peaceful? No, strike that too. The general is . . . well, what is the general? Oh, yeah, that's right: The general is retired. After thirty-four years in the military, after taking twenty-three jobs (which he can recite, from memory) and moving thirty-one times on behalf of the United States government, the general is a civilian. The general is a businessman. The general resigned from Stephens in February of this year?not, he says, because he's running for president, but rather because, with war brewing in Iraq, he was being asked to speak out more and more and thought it was unfair for Stephens to bear the burden of his opinions. He still serves on four corporate boards, though, and is the "nonexecutive chairman" of the board of a company called WaveCrest, which is developing highly efficient electric motors for applications in the military and possibly in hydrogen-fueled automobiles. The general likes working for WaveCrest because WaveCrest is about the future, and so, as it happens, is the general. Indeed, the general is something of a prodigy where the future is concerned. Once, the U. S. Army tested a thousand of its officers to see how well they extrapolated future trends from current patterns. The general, long before he was a general, finished first, and now, when he articulates the principles that would inform the creation of his political platform, he does so in terms of "outcomes" five, thirty, and a hundred years in the future. For your five-year outcome, you concentrate on rebuilding the economy. For your optimum thirty-year outcome, education. And for your optimum hundred-year outcome, the entire institutional environment. And you start now. You acknowledge the interdependence of all outcomes so that you don't make the terrible mistake of rebuilding the economy at the expense of education, at the expense of the environment.
"I believe that the WaveCrest electric motor has a chance to be the propulsion system of choice for the twenty-first century." That's what the general is saying right now, in a studio in Dulles, Virginia, in the video spot he is recording for WaveCrest. Second take: The motor "has a chance?a good chance?to be the propulsion system of choice for the twenty-first century." There are no takes after that, because whatever the producers ask the general to do he does with extreme efficiency, without a script, and so now he goes back to his cell phone, back to his BlackBerry, looking like any other American executive until he starts talking again about that which consumes him: fear. The idea of fear, that is, or fear as an idea?for the general is in no way consumed by fear itself. Now he begins talking, in front of the video crew, about listening to Bill O'Reilly conducting one of his show trials on radio. In the general's rendering, O'Reilly is interviewing a liberal judge who has lifted restrictions on the movement of homeless people in his community. " ?Judge,' " the general begins, in perfect O'Reilly rhythm, " ?do you have any children?' ?Yes, I do. I have a daughter.' ?Judge, what would you do if a homeless man came to your house and started defecating in front of your nine-year-old daughter?' ?That's never happened.' ?But let's say it did happen, judge. What would you do?' ?I'd probably ask if he needed to use the bathroom.' ?Oh, c'mon, judge. Get off it. There's a homeless man right on your front lawn. And he's taking a dump in front of your nine-year-old daughter! What are you gonna do about it?' "
This is what the general does. He internalizes his opponents?those on the other side of an issue or a battle?so that he may prevail over them. As an unintended consequence, he is a gifted mimic, whether of O'Reilly, Slobodan Milosevic ("General Clark, he obeys orders; he is like dog"), or, on one afternoon at WaveCrest, George W. Bush. His mimicry does not amount, in the case of our president, to mockery. It is simply his way of judging what Bush may have on the Democratic field so that he may judge what the Democratic field might possibly have on Bush. He is sitting in his office, eating lunch, talking about what might convince him to join the field or stay away. He is talking about running for president and saying that the mistake he does not want to make is the one that's most common: the mistake of finding the reason to run not in oneself but rather in one's opinion of the guy already holding office. "They look at him and say, ?Hey, I'm smarter than that guy. If that guy can do it, it must not be that hard.' Well, they're wrong. It's hard. It's the hardest thing in the world. So you better have another reason." It's not the lure of power. He's had power. He was arguably the most powerful man in Europe and definitely one of the most powerful men in the world, and so he is not lusting for power so much as he is weighing his desire to "make a contribution" against what he believes is the ultimate consideration for anyone running for president against George Bush: "how much pain you can bear."
And there will be pain. You get the sense, talking to the general, that he has thought it through and decided that the only way to beat Bush is to go to war against him. You get that sense because suddenly, as you are talking to the general, he stands up from his peaceful lunch, and suddenly he is doing Bush. Suddenly he is the warrior president, addressing the delegates at the Republican convention in New York in September 2004, saying that on behalf of the American people, he has fought terrorists at home and abroad, saying that he has fought and won two wars against states that sponsor terrorism, saying that because of his efforts, the American people are safer than they were three years ago and that?and here he finds the resonating Dubyan chord?"there is sunshine ahead."
Then he stops and, reverting back to himself, says, "Now tell me. What Democrat can go up against that?"
Answer: the Democrat who can ask George Bush questions he doesn't want to hear, questions he's afraid of. The Democrat who has been trained to ask those questions. The Democrat who has made asking those questions a way of life.
REMEMBER WHEN THE all-volunteer Army was a joke? Remember Stripes? Remember politicians bemoaning our lack of military preparedness? The general does. "I remember reading articles on what a disaster the volunteer Army was supposed to be, because we were losing war games," he says in his office at WaveCrest. " ?Oh, my God! Every time our guys go up against guys who are supposed to be the Russians and the North Koreans, we lose! We're getting killed out there. What are we gonna do?' What people didn't know back then was that we were supposed to lose. We were learning to lose. We were learning to lose so that we could learn to win."
That was the general's idea. In the late eighties and early nineties, he was at the Army's National Training Center, in Fort Irwin, California. He was developing training programs. He was building an opposition force (OPFOR) that existed solely for the purpose of putting visiting units and commanders to the test. He was commanding the Russians and the North Koreans. He was making sure that the self-scrutiny that swept the Army after Vietnam was part of the training process. He was sending units out into the Mojave Desert to fight against OPFOR in scenarios that were defined to their disadvantage. He was sending observers out with every unit, with every commanding officer. He was conducting what he calls "Socratic dialogue" that explored every decision the officers made, as well as every mistake. The idea was not to punish officers for their mistakes nor to second-guess their decisions. The idea was not even to hold officers accountable for their mistakes and decisions. The idea was to encourage officers to hold themselves accountable. The idea was to create a culture of accountability in which the Army's enormous investment in training and education could take root and flourish, and in which every soldier counted.
It worked. A military that consisted mostly of conscripts and tasted defeat in Vietnam was transformed into a volunteer force that dominates the world, and at the heart of that transformation was not just technological advances but, as the general says, "a whole new way of developing human potential." It worked, and now the value that, to the general's mind, made the historic transformation possible?accountability?has become his sword as a civilian, as well as the stone in his sling, if he is to become a politician. Accountability is the value that he hopes to export from military to civilian life, the value that informs even his most fledgling attempt to formulate a platform, the value by which he hopes America's education system will be rebuilt, with teaching professionalized in the new century the same way soldiering was at the end of the last. And it is the value that makes whatever policy disagreements he has with President Bush seem strangely personal, for it is the value that distinguishes a warrior from, well, a warrior president.
They have met but once, and that was for a few minutes at some kind of Washington function, and yet they seem made for some epic confrontation. One is from the meritocracy, one from the aristocracy; one served, and one found ways not to; one worked in government all his life and, despite the inevitable frustrations, ultimately believed it worth fighting and dying for, while the other's proper dream of government is to make it beholden to business and religion. They are polar opposites in nearly all ways, except one: They have both brought the overwhelming force of the United States armed forces to bear. Indeed, although the general can go into any fight with Bush claiming to have done what Bush has done, Bush can claim to have done what the general has done, in spades.
What is the difference between the two men, then, in matters of war? The answer is that the Bush administration has liberated war from the yoke of NATO, the UN, and international alliances; the general, though constrained by that yoke when he was SACEUR, prefers it to the alternative: war unleashed, war unbound, war that becomes too easy to fight and to tolerate and to rely on. "We read your book," a Bush administration official told him once. "No one is going to tell us where we can or can't bomb." To the general's mind, however, the difficulty of allowing NATO ministers to tell you where to bomb is offset by the power and legitimacy that international support confers. What is galvanic about the prospect of an electoral contest between the general and the president is that it becomes a referendum on the future of war and?since we are going to be at war for the foreseeable future?a referendum on the future of this country.
Could the general ever claim the right to make such weighty decisions, given his lack of political experience? Well, the president has claimed the right to make such weighty decisions without the benefit of military experience, his spotty record as a fighter pilot for the Texas Air National Guard notwithstanding. In General Clark's world, the importance of having served in the military has much less to do with the courage required for combat than it does with the courage required for full accountability. "In the Navy, when a ship runs aground, the commanding officer is relieved of duty, no matter what the reason. Now, I'm not saying we ought to hold politicians to that standard, but still. . . ."
President Bush was the Commander in Chief during the greatest security failure in this nation's history. He has not had the courage to be held accountable and indeed has done his best to prevent even a review of what happened on that day. And yet he wears a flight suit with COMMANDER IN CHIEF on the front and claims prestige as a warrior president? It is something no soldier could countenance. And it makes him vulnerable to a candidate in whom the value of accountability is ingrained and for whom the question the Commander in Chief doesn't want to hear?the question of what he knew about 9/11 before 9/11 even happened?is the question that must be asked as a matter of military honor.
WE LIKE OUR PRESIDENTS to have been soldiers because we like them to have shown courage under fire, which is to say that we do not like them to be cowards. We do not like our presidents to have been generals because we do not like our presidents to have had military ambitions, which is to say that we do not like them to be warmongers. The general, however, takes care to distinguish between the courage required for soldiering and the courage required for being a general, between physical courage and the courage required to make difficult decisions, even at personal expense. It was not so long ago that he had to show both kinds.
In August 1995, the general?three stars, working as J-5 for the Joint Chiefs?went to Bosnia as part of the negotiating team Ambassador Richard Holbrooke had put together to end the civil war that had resulted in the massacre of as many as eight thousand Muslim men and boys at the town of Srebrenica the month before. In Belgrade, Clark had met for the first time Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, who was sponsoring the Bosnian Serbs. Now the team had to travel to Sarajevo. Told that the airport in Sarajevo was too dangerous to fly into, the team decided to drive and asked Milosevic to guarantee its safety on a road held by Bosnian Serbs. Milosevic did not, and so the team wound up taking a fortified Humvee and an armored personnel carrier on a pitched, narrow, winding mountain road notoriously vulnerable to Serb machine-gun fire. Clark and Holbrooke went in the Humvee, the rest in the APC. In his book, the general describes what happened this way: "At the end of the first week we had a tragic accident on Mount Igman, near Sarajevo. [Three members of the team] were killed when the French armored personnel carrier in which they were riding broke through the shoulder of the road and tumbled several hundred meters down a steep hillside."
It is not until one reads Holbrooke's book, To End a War, that one finds out that after the APC went off the road, Clark grabbed a rope, anchored it to a tree stump, and rappelled down the mountainside after it, despite the gunfire that the explosion of the APC set off, despite the warnings that the mountainside was heavily mined, despite the rain and the mud, and despite Holbrooke yelling that he couldn't go. It is not until one brings the incident up to the general that one finds out that the burning APC had turned into a kiln, and that Clark stayed with it and aided in the extraction of the bodies; it is not until one meets Wesley Clark that one understands the degree to which he held Milosevic accountable.
Four years later, the general went to war against him after the failure of diplomacy to drive the Serbs out of Kosovo. By this time, he had spent "dozens and dozens and dozens" of hours with Milosevic during the negotiations in Dayton of the accord that ended the war in Bosnia, and then in all the fruitless negotiations thereafter. He knew him; in fact, as he says, "I'm probably unique among twentieth-century commanders, in that I really knew the person I was fighting. So I knew what it would take to beat him, personally. And I knew he was watching me. I knew he watched every briefing. He looked at me to see if I was tired. He looked at me to see if I was discouraged. We were engaged in a war of the mind. Once the fighting started, though, it was a simple straight-line equation. The plan was to gain escalation dominance. Avoid anything that might suggest to Milosevic that the campaign was about to be ended and ratchet up the intensity step-by-step until you broke his will. He wasn't a tough guy. You know what kind of guy he was? He was the kind of guy who said he didn't play sports because his mother wouldn't let him. He was a wuss! He had these . . . soft, puffy white hands."
The war began on March 24, 1999. It was NATO's first war, as well as the first European war involving the Western alliance since World War II; to a remarkable degree, however, it was Wesley Clark's war. He was a four-star general, and he was the CinC, and he was the SACEUR. He was fighting for a beleaguered president who promised Congress from the outset that he would not commit ground troops to Kosovo and who therefore emboldened Milosevic to escalate the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo's Albanians when the bombing started. He was fighting under the scrutiny of a hostile and divided Congress whose Republican contingent had voted against the war and was looking for any excuse to humiliate Clinton as Commander in Chief. He was fighting a war with his hands tied, a war both limited and improvisatory in nature?a war, in other words, that violated the Powell Doctrine, which stressed overwhelming force and clear exit strategies. He was no longer fighting for John Shalikashvili, who'd picked him to head the European command, but for the new chief of staff, Hugh Shelton, who hadn't. He was fighting for a defense secretary, William Cohen, who was a Republican in a Democratic administration and who resented both the general's military ambitions?his incessant push for ground troops and Apache helicopters?and the political means by which he sought to accomplish them. He was fighting for NATO ministers who feared and resented the prospect of the American military's being unleashed on the European continent. He was fighting for France and Germany, for God's sake; he was fighting for the viability of the Western alliance, and yet he was fighting a war as alone as any American general could possibly be fighting one. It was him and Milosevic, and at the end he was accountable for everything: for a victory that required not a single American or NATO casualty; for the deaths of at least five hundred civilians, including the staff inside the Chinese embassy in Belgrade; for the return of 1.3 million Albanian refugees to their homes; for the preservation of NATO as a fighting force in Europe; and for the fact that when all was said and done, neither he nor Milosevic were left standing.
THEY WILL COME AT HIM, of course. Once he announces, they will come after him. General Wesley Clark? Isn't he the guy on TV? Isn't he one of those retired generals Rummy talks about? Wasn't he disliked by his own service? Wasn't he forced to retire? Wasn't he a little . . . reckless over there in Kosovo? General Clark came up in an era when we were fighting other people's wars. We're fighting our own war now. Let Goliath fight it; give the sword and spear and shield to a man who is unambivalent about the task. Yes, they will come at him, all right. And the thrust of their attack will make it clear that of all the general's multifarious gifts, a lack of complication is not one of them. He is a warrior who holds out the dream of peace; he is a man who worked for the Pentagon and who now espouses the values of state; he was too political for the military and too military for the politicians . . . too dovish for the hawks and too hawkish for the doves . . . too NATO for the Americans and too American for NATO. He is not even free of religious complication: Raised a Baptist, he converted to his wife's Catholicism in Vietnam, and he found out later in life that the father who died when he was almost four, Benjamin Kanne, was the first-generation son of Russian Jews.
Now look at him, this putative David, on an unseasonably cold and rainy spring day in Manchester, New Hampshire. He came up here on business for WaveCrest, but he took the time to visit a daycare center at a YMCA and then to speak to a meeting of Manchester's Rotary club; now he is visiting the Merrimack, a restaurant on Manchester's main drag that has become a place of pilgrimage for presidential aspirants. Yes, look at him, leaning over the counter and shaking the hand of the proprietor; look at him, blithely oblivious to the lights and cameras that surround him; look at him, squired by a bow-tied Manchester lawyer, George Bruno, who is known in Manchester as one of the first Democrats to get behind Clinton; look at him, heading over to a back booth to talk to local Democrats who have not yet committed their support to any of the nine Democratic contenders. He is the candidate who is the noncandidate, and vice versa, and he has not resolved any of his ambivalences into a declaration.
What is he here for then? Oh, that's right?dialogue . . . but that's not what the woman standing by, waiting to present him with a thousand e-mails culled from a Web site, wants; not what the people who wrote the e-mails urging him to run on their behalf want; not even what the Democrats in the booth want. One of them says as much: Though self-described as "an old Leftie," she says, "This year I'm not standing on principle. This year I want to go with the guy who has the best chance of beating George Bush. And I want to know what it is that makes you think you can. I know this is an unfair question, because you're not a candidate. But I'm assuming you're not in New Hampshire for our wonderful spring weather."
The general answers that, no, he is not a candidate, that he has neither organized nor raised money. He doesn't want to declare himself a candidate because he wants to stay a warrior as long as he possibly can. But can't he see what's in her eyes? She is sore afraid. She doesn't want him to run for president so much as she wants him to run against the president. She wants him to stay a warrior by becoming a candidate, for she doesn't need another candidate so much as she needs something else: a champion. Leftie that she is, peacenik that she is, liberal that she is, Democrat that she is, she's ready to invest her last best hope in the prospect of Wesley Clark waging one more war.