Wesley K. Clark: A General's Doubts

By David Ignatius Friday, January 31, 2003, washingtonpost.com

DAVOS, Switzerland -- As the countdown continues toward war against Iraq, it's worth listening one last time to the arguments against that conflict, as laid out this week by one of America's most distinguished retired generals, Wesley K. Clark.

My own gut tells me that this is a war worth fighting. But I'm bothered that America still hasn't had the kind of broad national debate that would provide a solid foundation of public support for sending U.S. troops into battle.

So when a former NATO commander -- the man who led the 1999 war that rescued Kosovo from Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic -- tells me he's worried about Iraq policy, I pay attention. The other thing that makes Clark's views interesting is that he's increasingly mentioned as a possible Democratic presidential candidate.

Clark, 58 and only two years into retirement from the U.S. Army, clearly feels ambivalent these days -- far more so than last fall, when he first began criticizing the administration's Iraq policy. He doesn't want to second-guess President Bush on the eve of battle.

"I've told all the Europeans, they need to get on the team," he explains. "It's better to be inside the tent than outside." And if war does come, he says, "my heart is with the men and women who will fight. I want them to be successful."

Clark's argument, in simple terms, is that unless the United States can bring a strong coalition into a war against Iraq, it may put itself in greater danger. The chief threat to U.S. security right now is al Qaeda, he argues. Disarming Iraq is important too, he says, but it's not the most urgent task.

The Bush administration's mistake in Iraq, says Clark, is one of priorities. "They picked war over law. They picked a unilateralist approach over a multilateral approach. They picked conventional forces over special-operations forces. And they picked Saddam Hussein as a target over Osama bin Laden."

Clark worries that the Iraq policy is fatally flawed because it's likely to create new recruits for America's main enemy -- the Islamic fundamentalists who destroyed the World Trade Center and attacked the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. He recalls a military dictum from his days as commander of the Army's National Training Center: "There are only two kinds of plans -- ones that might work and ones that won't work. You have to avoid a plan with a fatal flaw."

The key to NATO's success in Kosovo, Clark says, was that the United States maintained a strong coalition of allies, even at the cost of delay and political bickering in European capitals and Washington.

Clark doesn't doubt that overwhelming U.S. military power would quickly crush Saddam Hussein's relatively weak forces. Indeed, he gave a dazzling briefing for global leaders at the World Economic Forum here this week about how U.S.-led forces will move toward Baghdad.

His concern, instead, is about what comes after -- "the unpredictability of consequences," as he puts it. Clark fears that the new dangers generated by a war in Iraq might outweigh any gains from disarming Saddam Hussein.

Clark cites three tests that the administration must meet before going to war. "First, are you sure you won't destroy the international institutions you say you are supporting, and thereby undermine the war against terror? Second, can you win the war quickly and smoothly, avoiding the collateral damage that would make you lose while winning? And third, in the aftermath, can you prevent the growth of al Qaeda and control the weapons of mass destruction that may be hidden?"

If the Bush administration can answer "yes" to all three, then the Iraq war will succeed, Clark says. But he isn't convinced.

Clark talks with a politician's passion, and he certainly was making the rounds at Davos like a man who is pondering a campaign. He says he supports many aspects of former president Clinton's economic policy, especially "the basic policy of trying to reduce public-sector debt, which produced a lot of confidence in financial communities around the world." And like Clinton, he is a Rhodes scholar.

What separates Clark from both Clinton and Bush is that he has seen the face of war close up. He went to Vietnam in 1969 and came home the next year on a stretcher after being shot in the leg, hip, shoulder and hand. "The mission was to find the enemy, and I was successful," he says.

Clark insists that he is not a candidate. But some Democratic Party insiders regard this contrarian ex-general as an attractive potential challenger to Bush. All such political questions, Clark insists, lie "over the hump" of the looming war in Iraq.