December 18, 2003


Bush Should Have Found Bin Laden, Clark Says Democratic Candidate Calls Terrorist Leader a Far Greater Threat Than Hussein (Dan Balz, Washington Post, 12/18/03)

Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark said yesterday that President Bush should have tracked down and captured Osama bin Laden rather than waging war in Iraq, arguing that while the arrest of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was "good news" for the world, bin Laden's al Qaeda network represents a far greater threat to the security of the country. . . .

Bush, he said, should immediately refocus intelligence and military resources on the hunt for bin Laden. Clark said that, if he were president, bin Laden would be in custody already. "I would have kept the focus on Osama bin Laden," Clark said. "I would have gotten him. . . . I would like to think I would have had Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein by this time."

So, he would have gone after Saddam after all?

Posted by David Cohen at December 18, 2003 2:35 PM

Clark needs a stiff drink and a seat in the shade. The stalking prion has become the stalking quark (and he may go even smaller).

Posted by: jim hamlen at December 18, 2003 2:42 PM

Maybe hanging out with Madonna has given him the vapors?

Posted by: pchuck at December 18, 2003 3:13 PM

I think the General is looking to create a space-time anomaly. The President Clark that would had focused on Bin Laden and not Hussein would have been a Republican. Thus no matter what President Clark would have done, General Clark, a Democrat, would have thought it was stupid and would have done the opposite. But if he had done the opposite...Oh my. Call Madonna.

Posted by: MG at December 18, 2003 3:35 PM

Or maybe you just focus obsessively on semantics?

Clark mentions Saddam because we actually have him, not because he would have attacked Iraq at this time. It's quite clear what he meant: we needed to focus on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, not Iraq.

These "gotcha" type attacks on Clark are almost always based not on what he said, but what his opponents want to twist it into. It generally falls apart after closer analysis, like the bogus claims Clark believed in "time travel."

General Clark's position has been quite clear. He has not been inconsistent.

1) Saddam was a threat, but not an immediate threat. Therefore, any final showdown could be delayed.
2) Going after Saddam at this time was not necessary for American security, but it did unnecessarily harm American foreign relations.
3) The UN and our NATO allies are important. They provide diplomatic cover for us, and proper use allows us to forge world opinion. Failure to utilize this is because of the Bush presidency's lack of expertise in diplomacy.
4) That in the media age, world opinion is important because it constrains and defines the conditions which we wage war under.

Clark has consistently pointed out failings and missed opportunities of the Bush strategy. He clearly feels that Iraq was not the right war or the right time. Unlike Howard Dean, Clark has an actual strategy to win. He does not fetishize the UN and multilateral forums, but sees them as tools the Bush administration has proven incapable of using.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at December 18, 2003 4:02 PM

Yeah Chris. It's not contradiction it's nuance. We conservatives can't think like that. Ask the Cal-Berkley psych department.

Posted by: Jeff at December 18, 2003 4:14 PM

In one of his ads running in NH he says it's time to turn control of Iraq back to the Iraqis. Does he mean give control back to those who used to have control???

Posted by: SJ at December 18, 2003 4:19 PM

"These "gotcha" type attacks on Clark are almost always based not on what he said, but what his opponents want to twist it into."

Halleluiah!!! (sp?)

I have been arguing this to the deaf by choice for three years now about my President. Thanks for putting it so succinctly. I'll be happy to use your sentence, as that is EXACTLY what Mr. Bush's opponents have been doing relentlessly. I could start with the fact that WMD was just ONE of the reasons Bush gave at the UN (Well, talk about a hidden speech. Who could possibly have heard it there??? ;-), but all we hear is "That was your reason, where are they?", etc etc. "End of major combat" became immediately "You said the war was over", etc etc. "Uh, world the Senate killed Kyoto two years ago 95-O in case you missed the papers" became "I, George Bush, am personally pulling out", etc etc. God, I'll be here all day. So just how much of that "failure to utilize" dipomacy toward our ends in is fact because the BBC and fellow Euro-media travellers doing EXACTLY what both you and I are discussing right now?

Posted by: Andrew X at December 18, 2003 4:58 PM

Immaterial.... Immaterial....

Posted by: Barry Meislin at December 18, 2003 5:34 PM

Of course I focus obsessively on semantics. It's my favorite brand of gotcha humor. I will gladly make you this deal, though: I will stop using gotcha semantic arguments on Clark when the Democrats stop making gotcha semantic arguments about the President. Otherwise, I think it is fair game and good clean fun and, by the way, very helpful to the Republicans as the Democrats keep underestimating the President based upon their semantic obsession.

Now, Clark's position, as you articulate it (and you do a better job of articulating it than he does) is nonsense. First, the distraction argument. This argument was first broached when the administration was derided for thinking that we could invade and conquer Iraq quickly and with a relatively small force. Now that we've done that, it is much less useful. At this point, the only evidence offered for it is negative: we haven't caught bin Laden. Rather than explain how he would have captured bin Laden, Clark falls back on credentialist non sequitors: I was a General, so I would have captured him.

In any event, the proof of the pudding is in the eating; there is no evidence that the administration has been distracted by Iraq. Certainly, al Qaeda did not use Iraq as a cover to attack us. In fact, news reports now out claim that bin Laden approved attacks against US bases in Turkey but that our defences were too good, forcing the terrorists to choose softer, non-US targets.

Second, you say that Saddam was a threat, but not an immediate threat. Based on what? The last three administrations, including during General Clark's time as a senior military commander, have all said that Saddam was a serious threat. After 9/11, we have realized we don't know when a threat is "serious" and, frankly, I think that the Democrats have a different definition of serious than mine. I think, as I suggest somewhere else on the site, is driven by hatred of the President, not by security considerations, and has slid over into lunatic territory. Again, whether Saddam was an immediate threat is relevant only if overthrowing him is long, costly and distracting. As it wasn't, who cares?

The UN and NATO are meaningless and the sooner we walk away, the better. Clark should know at least half of this. The war in Kosovo was not approved by the UN and couldn't have been, as Russia and China were bitterly opposed. In fact, Russia had a much more rational basis for opposing our actions in Kosovo than Russia, Germany or France had in Iraq. China, too, was opposed, even before we bombed their embassy. It seems to me that General Clark treats international organizations the same way all Americans do: a make-weight argument against doing those things we're otherwise against anyway.

General Clark's reaction to the pulling of the steel tariffs was telling in this regard. He ridiculed the President for giving in to the WTO, until someone realized how stupid that was and corrected his statement. You imply the same thing when you say that the value of our allies is to "provide diplomatic cover for us". In other words, our allies are a tool to let us do what we want to do. This, then, comes down to an argument about whether Germany, France and Russia were amenable to being convinced that we should be allowed to invade Iraq. I take them at their word that they weren't. I hope that isn't obsessively semantic of me.

Your final point is baffling: "That in the media age, world opinion is important because it constrains and defines the conditions which we wage war under." (By the way, it should be "the conditions under which we wage war".) I really don't get what you're saying. Do you deny that going to war, conquering Iraq in a couple of weeks and staying the course even when it was costly to us, will have a beneficial effect on world opinion?

The best sense I can make of your statement is that world opinion is important because it is easier to do what we want to do if the world wants us to do it. I would agree, I guess, that world opinion is not entirely irrelevant, but I think you are mistaken about (a) what world opinion actually is and (b) how much we should care. As General Clark knows perfectly well, the President's obligation is to act in the best interests of the United States. World opinion is a means, not an end. Your statement leaves open the possibility that you understand this, but then, again, we're left with two choices: either world opinion will constrain us, or it will be relevant only to bolster our positions arrived at independently. As General Clark ignored world opinion on Kosovo, I assume he would have done so here, if he wanted to go after Saddam.

Which brings us back full circle. Your arguments and Clark's arguments are attempts to avoid having an argument. Would Clark have gone to war to oust Saddam or not? If President Clark had been elected in 2000, would there still be a President Hussein? It seems to me that, semantically, candidate Clark is not willing to say that there would be but not willing to say that there wouldn't be, either. On the biggest question of the current Presidency, he is trying to have it both ways.

The reason he is being ambiguous is that he cannot make the argument that he wants to make. He wants to make the argument that the President made the right strategic choices but has been tactically incompetent. (Daniel Drezner has just made this argument in Slate.) In other words, Clark is still running to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs: once the policy has been decided, he's your man.

Clark has been dancing around this argument right along. He tried it out at CNN, where he second-guessed Tommy Franks' every decision. As it turned out, Franks was right and Clark was wrong. He is making it now, when he says that he would have captured both bin Laden and Saddam. This is the reason that Clark is not a serious candidate. His arguments are, at heart, all about tactics. Presidents decide strategy, and on that Clark opts out and he is wrong about tactics every time he talks.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 18, 2003 5:42 PM

David, thank you. Some day, somehow, I hope to enjoy an evening of good food and conversation with you eastcoasters.

I've come to the conclusion that the media's job is simply to entertain us with controversy. When one stops to apply reason to what's being said by folks such as Gen. Clark these days, it rarely stands up to scrutiny. Just the other day I was telling a colleague that I simply don't have the energy to be a liberal. Call me lazy, but it just seems extraordinarily consuming to be stuck saying "Yeah, but ____________ (fill in blank with the pessimistic or history revisionist phrase du jour)" or concocting ridiculous, oulandish conspiracy theories or pretending that if you were somebody else, you would do something else and YOU CAN MIRACULOUSLY PREDICT THE RESULTS OF THOSE TWO FANTASMIC ASSUMPTIONS.

"Clark said that, if he were president, bin Laden would be in custody already."

Setting aside delusions of time travel for a moment, you're not entitled to do this, sir. Not and be taken seriously. You may say: "If I were president, things would be done differently." But please don't insult my intelligence by making assumptions about things which, even if you WERE president, you simply could not control. And, while we're on the subject, wouldn't we both prefer to have a man in the oval office who looks at things the way they are rather than the way he wished they were?President Bush is not wasting energy making predictions about how things might have been had Mr. Clinton's administration seized the numerous opportunities to get bin Laden. He's just methodically going about the business of dealing with reality as it exists today. That's just one example of why he's fit for the office and Clark simply is not.

Posted by: John Resnick at December 18, 2003 6:27 PM

Nice point, John.

(But actually meeting people from the blog? Seems awfully radical to me.)

Posted by: David Cohen at December 18, 2003 7:10 PM

One might also point out that while Supreme Allied Commander of Europe, Clark failed to apprehend the two biggest war criminals in Bosnia, even though they aren't particularly hiding. The US / NATO have been in Bosnia for eight years and Karadic and Mladic remain free!

Posted by: SJ at December 18, 2003 7:14 PM

Better yet: Sir, if you were president in 1998, perhaps you could have avoided firing yourself for the Bosnia debacle?

Posted by: John Resnick at December 18, 2003 10:38 PM

David: Awesome response. Remind me to never be on the other side of the bar from you.

John: That second bit was great.

Posted by: Chris at December 19, 2003 9:10 AM

My split infinitive was ironic. Yeah, that's the ticket.

Posted by: Chris at December 19, 2003 9:11 AM

John, David:

Full points.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 19, 2003 9:57 AM

Once comments start to become this long and generate such long posts, I become naturally wary of continuing them in a comment thread (I really need to start posting on my own blog again), but it's what we have.

First, I agree that Democrats are equally guilty in being obsessive on semantic type issues in regards to President Bush. However, Bush in general has a very poor oratory and brought much of this on himself.

I agree that right now that evaluating alternate strategies of dealing with Al Qaeda is hard for the opposition. Bush has clear accomplishments because he's been in charge. Clark and others haven't been in charge so we don't have any fruit of what they would have accomplished. This is clearly an advantage for the President.

Now we come to the point whether Iraq was a "serious" or "immediate" threat or what other worde you want to use about Iraq (I'm using quotes simply to highlight the specific words, not in a scare quotes type fashion.) The disagreement is not whether a final reckoning with Saddam was needed. I was sick of the whole damn containment strategy anyway which is the reason I personally supported the war, but I can also respect the position of certain anti-war people like Clark who were willing to put it off until later (I'm not counting the hysterical people who were anti-war because they're anti-American.)

I define "immediate" threat because Saddam did not have a functioning WMD program. Now Saddam was not in compliance with sanctions, so I personally think that's valid enough to take him out. But from a purely pragmatic viewpoint, we could have waited a year and given the French the extra time they wanted and still gone in to punk Saddam and not be in any greater threat from Saddam's WMD program.

The invasion plan of Iraq went very well, but I think the post-planning definitely had failings. I'm not talking about the hysterical stuff like not having troops at some stupid museum whose artifacts weren't stolen anyway. We didn't have enough MP's. Unemployed people are more prone to agitation than some guy working 9 to 5 so why don't we have a works program? Just recently the pro-war Economist was mentioning that unemployment is a big problem. We don't have control over the borders so the Islamists are able to enter without problem. We haven't effectively used Iraqis to police themselves which is something even OJ has mentioned.

Now maybe I just have too high expectations because I'll also admit things could be a lot, lot worse and Bush deserves credit for preventing that scenario. But I also think the items I mentioned don't require geniuses to think of, and so it's a failing of the Bush administration not to do them.

Then again, it's a failure of the Bush adminstration not to hold someone in the FBI and CIA accountable for not doing their jobs on 9/11 and reforming them. Commentators like former CIA Marc Reuel Gerecht - who now writes regularly for conservative journals like the Weekly Standard - also states our intelligence needs reform, so this isn't just a hysterical critique. If Bush had acted on that, I'd be more willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he was not missing other opportunities as well. I think Clark would do a better job holding people accountable for doing their jobs and would also have done better in post-war planning. I don't think the excellent job our boys are doing in Iraq excuses Bush from giving them a better game plan.

David perfectly summed up my points on allies: alliances and multilateral organizations are tools to implement US policies and achieve US objectives. I think France is a pain in the butt, but I also don't believe the hysteria that they are our enemies. I don't think France, Germany, or even Russia are impervious to suasion. I think the Bush administration lacks the diplomatic skill to do so, but I don't think others would be. I think Clark has demonstrated he does have that skill, even if people like Dean have not.

Now groups like NATO and the UN have flaws, but they also serve US aims. We created those groups and they help "lock in" the international system to overall American aims. I think their success in that has been so good it's easy to overlook that. Maintaining alliances is hard work, but do much to secure the soft power that serves as a force multiplier to our hard power. Consulting with allies may seem unnecessary, but it prevents competitive power blocs from forming - which is what France and Germany are trying to do now. Given the obvious power discrepancies between the US and everyone else, I'm confident we could have gotten them on our side - although maybe not in the timetable Bush wanted.

Finally, I agree with David's comments on world opinion. There are times it should be ignored, but when to ignore it requires a value judgment rather than any objective material. The question is whether the costs to our soft power influence is compensated by the benefits of action. I don't think that it was impossible to convince France and others to go along with us on Iraq. That failure is due to Bush not being adroit enough, not a completely adamant stance by France. Therefore, the harm done to our soft power influence is something that could have been avoided. It was an unnecessary cost and one that will hurt was more in the long term than in the immediate term.

There are definite flaws in the international system and reforming them will cause many states discomfort. That can't be helped. But we also need to realize that the international system is molded more or less on pro-US lines and undermining it ultimately hurts US interests. There are many issues of the terror war where we need to lead other nations into reforming the international system, and I think we're alienating allies that will make this much harder and for little material benefit on things we would have gotten anyway.

In the future, now that my Spanish class is over (at least until next semester) I'll try to post these debate-length comments on my blog as I feel that's the more appropriate forum for such long posts.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at December 19, 2003 12:06 PM

We already know the approximate whereabouts of Usama bin Laden: Pakistan.
However, there are regions of Pakistan that are only very loosely under the Pakistan national government's control, and General Musharraf is not firmly in control of either the country, nor the military and para-military forces, especially the intelligence faction.
In fact, in at least one instance, Pakistani forces have fired over the border, at American forces in Afghanistan.

Thus, President Musharraf is in no position to assault the tribes protecting bin Laden, (assuming he's there), and the US certainly doesn't want to insert our own forces into a nominally allied, nuclear armed, Muslim country.

Chris Durnell:

The US didn't have the luxury of waiting much longer to confront Saddam.
First, the only reasons that America could even seriously contemplate invading Iraq were the UN Security Council Resolutions and sanctions, and 9/11, which gave the US international sympathy and support. In other words, the US and Iraq were seen to still be in a state of conflict, from '90, and America's actions were viewed in a more favorable light, due to the terror attack.
However, neither condition was permanent, and the power of both were waning over time. The sanctions on Iraq could easily have been lifted at any time, as almost occured at least twice in the years before the second US invasion. The international sympathy was abating, as is human nature.
Second, the US had stationed hundreds of thousands of troops in the Middle East, in preparation for the assault. Not only was that deployment costing billions, but the longer the troops waited, the less effective they'd be, once the balloon went up. Further, we'd have had to immediately start rotating troops home, if they'd already spent a year sitting in the desert, or we'd have a situation where many people would have been away from their families for two straight years, which is a bad situation from a humanitarian, military morale and readiness, or a Presidential reelection campaign viewpoint.
Third, there were concerns about the weather and climate. If the US wanted to attack without being at a disadvantage, there was a finite window of opportunity.

Thus, if Iraq was to be attacked at all, the assault was launched at almost the last possible moment.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at December 19, 2003 1:29 PM