National Review Online
August 21, 2003
By Alan W. Dowd

Wesley Clark is reportedly close to joining the crowded field of Democratic presidential candidates. The indications are that the retired Army general and former commander of NATO will announce his decision sometime around Labor Day.

TV ads are already running; websites are up and blogging—all highlighting Clark’s military bona fides. Worried about the leftward lurch of Democratic frontrunners, pundits are beginning to swoon over Clark. A fawning feature in Esquire raves that Clark is “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.” And to top it all, “He looks good on TV.”  American Prospect dubs Clark “Mr. Credibility.” The New Republic’s Franklin Foer declares, “Clark's shot at beating Bush is exponentially better than those of any of the other contenders,” thanks to his military resume and “centrist maverick” style.

But leading the swoon stampede is the Atlantic Monthly's Jack Beatty, who calls Clark “the ideal candidate.” And for good reason, apparently: Beatty notes that Clark graduated top in his class at West Point (which means he’s smarter than Bush); had a distinguished military career, including combat tours (which means he’s more qualified to lead than Bush); is from the South (which neutralizes a Bush strength and exploits a weakness for Gov. Dean, Sen. Kerry and Sen. Lieberman); is pro-choice (which means he’s more sensitive to women, more progressive than Bush); knows how to work with allies and would “stand up for the UN” (finally, someone who will stand up for an organization that has stood with America so many times); and was born an Orthodox Jew, raised as a southern Baptist, and converted to Catholicism (which means he can checkmate Bush—and Lieberman and Kerry, for that matter—on the religion issue; one wonders what Beatty would have written if the general had practiced Buddhism or Islam somewhere along the way).  

“I can't think of a man and moment better matched than retired General Wesley Clark and the 2004 presidential election,” Beatty gushes. “Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 is the only possible comparison. Clark, like Ike, was the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. Politically scarless and ambidextrous like Ike, Clark served with Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney in the Ford White House and led Bill Clinton's air campaign in Kosovo.”

Clark is obviously Beatty’s ideal candidate; but like all hagiographers, he’s leaving out a few important details about his ambidextrous, unblemished president-in-waiting—details that may not help his candidacy.

It may seem like a Herculean, if not quixotic, task to run as a retired general, on a national-security platform, in a party that is energized by the anti-war sloganeering of Howard Dean and characterized by the national-security angst of John Kerry. But quixotic missions are nothing new for Clark. After all, this is the man who led NATO’s war in Kosovo—a just and necessary war, but a war that no one in the Alliance wanted to wage, with the possible exception of Tony Blair. This is the man who lobbied for a ground invasion of Serbia—an invasion plan that his president and peers on the Joint Chiefs of Staff declared dead on arrival.

This is the man who, as NATO shifted from war-fighting mode into peacekeeping mode, ordered his ground commander to deploy a helicopter assault team to block a surprise Russian advance into Kosovo’s major airfield—an order his British subordinate answered with a terse and chilling rejoinder: "I’m not going to start World War III for you." After both men appealed to their national commanders—a practice permitted under NATO’s vague and unwieldy war-fighting conventions—cooler heads in Washington and London agreed with Clark’s subordinate, concluding that NATO’s unity was more important than Kosovo’s airport. A humiliated Clark was forced to rescind his order. Two months later, he was unceremoniously replaced as Supreme Allied Commander-Europe (SACEUR). The turn of events stunned Clark: “I never saw myself as a 55-year-old retired general,” he later said.

To be fair, leading NATO into battle is something akin to herding cats, which is just one reason why the Bush administration is not always eager to turn every mission in the campaign against terror into a NATO operation. If anyone should understand why, it is Wes Clark, who saw NATO’s politicians fight a civil war over targets, bases, and battle plans. (It didn’t help that he served a halfhearted, distracted president.) The general shouldn’t be blamed for NATO’s balky command structure and dithering political leadership, but nor should he be lionized for leading the alliance to some great victory. After 77 days of bombing, the vaunted, hamstrung alliance barely beat back Serbia's 1960s-vintage military.

Nor should he be compared to Dwight Eisenhower. Wes Clark is no Eisenhower (a phrase one of his political opponents may try to use in the months ahead). Ike returned from Europe as a conquering hero, the general of generals. Even before he became president, Eisenhower was loved by the American people, respected by America’s allies and feared by America’s enemies. Clark is indeed a war hero—he fought and bled in Vietnam, earned a Silver Star after being wounded four times, commanded in times of combat and peace, and led NATO through its first war—but he is not beloved. In fact, he is barely even known outside the Beltway.  

Yet Beltway politics are an important front in Clark’s campaign—or at least in the campaign being mounted in his name. As historian David Halberstam writes in War in a Time of Peace, Clark’s critics “always believed he might be a little too political.” Clark often frustrated subordinates and superiors alike with his micromanaging tendencies and political maneuvering. In fact, he tried to play the hawkish Blair off against the distracted Clinton during NATO’s Kosovo campaign. Some NATO air commanders, especially the American ones, blamed Clark for compromising with NATO’s political leaders too much on targets early in the war, thus lengthening the campaign. After weeks of trying to corner and backchannel Clinton and the Joint Chiefs into launching a ground war, Clark was virtually quarantined from the war council. “I rue the day I made him SACEUR,” Defense Secretary Bill Cohen is reported to have said.

In an unmistakable sign of his anger with Clark’s style, Joint Chiefs Chairman Henry Shelton didn’t even bother attending Clark’s formal retirement ceremonies. Shelton wasn’t alone: Several other chiefs were AWOL as the Pentagon saluted General Clark for his abbreviated tenure.

Generals don’t have to be loved; indeed, some of the best ones are hated. But it seems that Clark continually rubbed the wrong people the wrong way, which brings us back to politics. Successful presidential candidates make their mark by making either everybody happy, most people happy, or the right people angry. Those candidates who make everyone angry—or the wrong people angry—are sure to fail. Clark may be such a candidate.

For example, according to the draftwesleyclark.com website, “Clark has implied that gun ownership is primarily a local issue. He also believes that assault weapons should be banned for the general public, stating, ‘people who like assault weapons they should join the United States Army, we have them.’ ” That last phrase will play well with the Democratic base and with many moderates and Independents. But most Americans support the right to bear arms in principle—and few of them consider the Second Amendment to the Constitution a “local issue.”

During a Meet the Press interview, Clark explained that “Taxes are something that you want to have as little of as possible, but you need as much revenue as necessary to meet people’s needs for services.” That’s true, but it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t know. Can you imagine what Beatty and the rest would have written if Bush had uttered such a vacuous, obvious phrase?  

When it comes to Iraq, Clark finds a way to rub war critics and war advocates the wrong way: In an NPR interview, he called Bush's decision to invade Iraq without UN approval "one of the greatest strategic blunders the American government has made since the end of the Cold War." Most Democratic primary voters will agree. (Never mind that the Kosovo war, which Clinton declared and Clark prosecuted, was waged without UN authorization.) But unlike many of the Democratic Party faithful—especially frontrunner Howard Dean—Clark believes that “there are some mass-destruction capabilities that are still inside Iraq.” In Clark’s estimation, some of Saddam’s weapons “have been shipped over the border to Syria.” If recent polls are any indication, that resonates with most Americans, but not with Dean’s Democrats.

In a word, Clark doesn’t seem to fit into either party right now. He may come to the same conclusion. However, even if the general decides to run, looks can be deceiving. Clark may not really be running for the nomination at all, but rather positioning himself for the Number 2 spot on the Democratic ticket. As any general will tell you, diversionary tactics are often the key to victory.


Tom Junod, The General, Esquire August 2003.

Meet the Press, June 15, 2003.

Franklin Foer, “Should the Democrats Draft a General?” Washington Post, July 12, 2003.

Jack Beatty, “The Ideal Candidate,” Atlantic Monthly, July 9, 2003.

Michael Tomasky, “Meet Mr. Credibility,” American Prospect, 3.1.03.


David Halberstam, War in a Time of Peace