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General disarray

Mike Marchand | Monday, September 22, 2003

For the last several weeks, there has been a buzz surrounding the nine participants in the Democratic presidential primary. Unfortunately, it had nothing to do with any of them, but rather with a new entrant: retired Army General Wesley Clark, who officially announced his candidacy last week.

You can’t blame people for not paying too much attention to the other presidential hopefuls. Comedian Dennis Miller quipped that he hasn’t seen a group of nine so awful since the 1962 New York Mets. (For those of you who aren’t baseball fans, the 1962 Mets are considered the worst team in modern baseball history, but they’ll only hold that designation for about another week or so until this year’s Detroit Tigers unseat them. So take heart, Democrats; it could be worse.)

So when someone – anyone – comes along who looks good, he’s immediately exalted to hero status. And what better entrance for a former general? Indeed, Clark’s résumé is impressive: top of his class at West Point, Rhodes scholar, decorated Vietnam veteran, NATO general and commander of the military operation in Kosovo.

However, surprisingly few people have stopped to consider whether or not any of that will translate into success as president. Military commanders, of course, have had a long history of entering politics, but none since Dwight Eisenhower a half-century ago. And Ike was a popular hero who was in charge of the largest international force in history as European Supreme Allied Commander; General Clark held essentially the same title, but can only claim a fraction of that fame and glory. It’s also worth noting that he picked the wrong party: since 1848, successful generals who won the Presidency have always been Republicans (or Whigs); whereas military candidates who’ve run under the Democratic flag have been losers like deposed Civil War General George McClellan.

Which is about where we come in with General Clark. Earlier this year, he was a military pundit for CNN who frequently commented on how disastrously the war plan in Iraq was unfolding. Granted, he’s entitled to his opinion, but his own strategies in the Kosovo campaign were just as flawed, if not more. Clark was convinced that aerial attacks alone would do the trick. After several months of error-prone bombing, he requested ground-troop reinforcements, but his miscalculation and his confrontational bullying attitude led to a forced early retirement.

Kosovo is a microcosm for the Clinton Administration’s foreign policy, the last of all the humanitarian missions the U.S. armed services engaged in while the threat posed by al-Qaida was flying in underneath everyone’s radar. For what it’s worth, General Clark would not have fought the war in Afghanistan, preferring to “[help] the United Nations create an International Criminal Tribunal on International Terrorism.” Again, he’s entitled to his opinion, but taking up arms against Slobodan Milosevic but not Osama bin Laden is, at best, a terrible case of misplaced priorities.

And speaking of misplaced priorities, what exactly benefits Democrats by Clark’s entry is somewhat befuddling. With a sour economy, one would think the Democrats’ game plan would be like that of the last Arkansas native and Rhodes scholar to defeat a Bush, when Bill Clinton played the what-have-you-done-for-us-lately card to neutralize George H.W. Bush’s Gulf War victory and topple him in 1992. However, the whole purpose of nominating someone like Clark, the internationalist general, is to be a foreign policy foil for George W. Bush, who Democrats see as a unilateralist “chicken hawk.”

But if the Democrats intend to defeat Dubya by criticizing the war in Iraq, it would be nice if their military candidate had a coherent position. Clark told the New York Times last Thursday that he would have voted for the Congressional resolution that authorized invasion, then immediately took it back the next day before delivering a speech at the University of Iowa: “Let’s make one thing real clear, I would never have voted for this war.”

So, in the end, there’s really only one discernible reason why Clark is gaining support: he’s a general and looks the part. Left-wing internet blogger Scoobie Davis thinks Clark can “kick George W. Bush’s illegitimate a–.” But despite the buzz, he doesn’t make a whole lot of sense as the Democratic nominee. He has one clear advantage over President Bush and can’t really capitalize on anything else. In fact, many cynical conservatives think Clark’s mission is simply to weaken Howard Dean’s candidacy enough so that Hillary Clinton can jump in and steal the nomination. Thankfully, I’m not burdened by such paranoia.

It is telling, though, how lukewarm the “1962 Mets” Democratic roster is when a pinch-hitter like General Clark suits up and grabs a bat. He’s not quite ready to swing yet, though; my prediction is that he’ll wind up being the vice presidential nominee for whoever does win the nomination.

Mike Marchand, class of 2001, would like to give props to eagle-eyed readers who spotted an error in his last column (and rightly hammered him for it), and also to everyone at The Observer who got face time on ESPN. His column appears every other Monday. Contact him at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.