Wesley Clark

Is there a general in the house?

Tired of running as John McCain, the Democratic candidates and pre-candidates for president have settled on a new archetype to emulate: Bill Clinton. John Edwards —the young, glib, pretty, Southern moderate—is the front-runner for the “Most Likely To Be Like Clinton” award, but there’s a dark horse in the running, too: Wesley Clark. The former NATO commander, who led the 78-day bombing campaign in Kosovo, bears a superficial resemblance to the 42nd president. He’s a former Rhodes scholar from Arkansas who has long been tabbed as one of his generation’s brightest stars (in the military, not in politics). But the substantive parallel is the more important one. Just as Clinton restored the Democratic Party’s reputation on economic policy, there’s hope that Clark can lead the party out of its national-security wilderness.

Before he could do that, of course, Clark would actually have to run for president (and win the nomination, which is a long shot). But there’s mounting evidence that he is going to do just that. During the fall election cycle, he met with New Hampshire Democrats and spoke to the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. In November, Time reported that Clark met with prominent Democrats in New York City to discuss his potential candidacy. Since then, he’s been issuing carefully crafted non-denial denials about his White House ambitions, saying he has “no intention” to run, that he “hasn’t raised any money,” and that he doesn’t “really have any plans.” But according the Des Moines Register, he’s enlisted a member of the Gore 2000 team as his top aide, he’s sought advice from Donna Brazile (who’s publicly urging him to run), and he’s contacted top Iowa Democrats about a caucus campaign. He’s now on the Associated Press’s shortlist of possible candidates, and just this week he talked with Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe about his prospects.

Despite all that, a Clark candidacy isn’t necessarily going to happen. As a New Hampshire Democrat told last year, “I’d say he is running, but I don’t know if he is running in 2004 or 2008 or beyond. I first met Clinton in 1979.” If it did happen, what would a Clark run look like? That’s an open question. He’s good-looking, but is he warm? Can he connect with a room? Can he raise money? He’s a blank slate on Democratic litmus-test issues such as abortion, affirmative action, economic policy, and health care—without even getting into picayune but essential primary issues such as ethanol subsidies. He’s on the record as opposing the trade embargo with Cuba, for example, but that’s the sort of issue a presidential candidate can easily back off from if need be.

The centerpiece for the 58-year-old Clark’s campaign would obviously be his biography, and it’s an impressive one: first in his class at West Point, Rhodes scholar, wounded in Vietnam, recipient of both the Purple Heart and the Silver Star. In 1981, when Clark was a 36-year-old lieutenant colonel, the Washington Post magazine profiled him as “the ideal, the perfect modern officer.” Since then, he continued his career as an Army “water walker,” moving effortlessly up the ranks to four-star general. Just as Dr. Bill Frist gives the Republicans some moral authority on health care, a traditional GOP weakness, Gen. Clark could strengthen the Democrats’ national-security hand.

One of the most compelling things about Clark is his ability to articulate—better than other Democrats, who sometimes resort to tiresome calls of “chickenhawk” or “quagmire”—the intellectual justification for what many Democrats feel in their gut: skepticism about the need for immediate war with Iraq; concern about the status of the war against al-Qaida; a preference for working with allies over going it alone; and a respect for the institutions that make up the international order that the United States built upon the ashes of World War II.

Clark is no dove. But he argues that the biggest mistake the Bush administration made in the aftermath of Sept. 11 was its refusal to conduct the war under the auspices of NATO, despite the alliance’s declaration that an attack on the United States was an attack on all its member nations. As a result, Europe is not accountable for success in the war on terrorism, only the United States is. European leaders see it as George W. Bush’s war, according to Clark, because Bush has made it his war. “Not a single European election hinges on the success of the war on terrorism,” Clark wrote in the September Washington Monthly. Clark even went so far as to employ a classic Vietnam metaphor to describe Bush’s policies: “Because the Bush administration has thus far refused to engage our allies through NATO, we are fighting the war on terrorism with one hand tied behind our back.”

Clark calls this “the lesson of Kosovo”: If you bring allies into a war, they will want to win it as badly as you do. That’s counterintuitive: The lesson most Americans took from Kosovo was that war by committee was a disaster that allowed, for example, a British commander to refuse Clark’s order to take an airfield. But, as David Halberstam showed in War in a Time of Peace, the fact that so many leaders had staked their reputations on the Kosovo war meant that they had to win it, despite strong opposition at home: “What [losing] would do to NATO—effectively signal the end of it—and to their countries (and it was known but never said, to their own careers and place in history) was also unacceptable.”

This obsession with Kosovo and the lessons that the military could learn from it call to mind another characteristic Clark shares with Clinton: He’s conducting a permanent campaign for his legacy. Practically the entire preface to the paperback edition of Clark’s memoir Waging Modern War (which was panned in Slate by Christopher Caldwell and Debra Dickerson) advances the argument that the war in Afghanistan and the fight against al-Qaida more closely resemble Kosovo than they do the Gulf War. The first strikes against Afghanistan in October 2001 “seemed so familiar and predictable, it was as if we were refighting the Kosovo operation on different ground,” Clark writes. (He concedes, “Maybe I was almost alone in this feeling …”)

Like Clinton, Clark was the brightest boy in the class who finally got his shot at the biggest job of all, but it didn’t represent the historic opportunity he imagined. Clark didn’t return from Kosovo a war hero—instead he was dumped as supreme allied commander by the Pentagon (which never really liked him and suspected him of being too close to Clinton). As a candidate, he wouldn’t be Dwight Eisenhower or Ulysses S. Grant or Andrew Jackson or George Washington. He wouldn’t even be Zachary Taylor. As that 1981 Post profile of the young Clark concluded, “As any military man will tell you, it takes a great war to produce a great general.” Clark never got that war. Now’s his chance.