Clark: What's Wrong with U.S. Policy in Iraq

As General Wesley K. Clark wades into the Presidential race as a Democrat, his views on Iraq, the terrorist threat, and national security should be of utmost interest to the electorate. His new book, Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism and the American Empire (PublicAffairs, 2003), is, in effect, Clark's campaign manifesto, providing insights into what he believes and what he would do as Commander-in-Chief. As a book, it is a smart take on the battlefield tactics used in Iraq as well as a tough-minded critique of the military strategy and the geopolitical doctrine followed by the Bush Administration. With the campaign heating up and talk of an Iraqi "exit strategy" growing, Clark's book offers a vision that contrasts sharply with that of President George W. Bush. Agree or disagree with the four-star general, here is what he says:

-- The war in Iraq "has thus far been a perfect example of dominating an enemy force but failing to win the victory." Clark says the Administration made the classic mistake of equating the defeat of an enemy with achieving its larger political goal. That goal was to set up a democratic, stable, secular Iraq which would help stop terrorism. Clark argues that this required higher force levels and a different strategy: "Victory means not the defeat of the opposing army but rather winning the follow-through operation to accomplish the aims and intent of the plan." Too few troops on the ground going in left Saddam's Sunni heartland unconquered and rearguard supply troops vulnerable to attack. Moving unilaterally meant there were no European or other foreign troops to help in combat or policing the peace. And inadequate postwar planning meant few Arabic-speakers on hand, hardly any power generators, and no portable communications equipment. The Pentagon's war strategy, in effect, had "a profound flaw -- the endgame."

-- The war in Iraq has weakened, not strengthened, the fight against terrorism "by diverting attention, resources and leadership, alienating allied supporters and serving as a rallying point for anyone wishing to do harm to the U.S. and Americans." Clark, who was publicly against the war from the start, argues that the Bush Administration failed to make the case that Iraq was an imminent danger. More important, the Administration was caught up in the Cold War policy template of fighting states, not supranational terrorists such as al Qaeda, and was predisposed to attack Iraq well before September. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and others believed that state-sponsored terrorism was the problem and that regime change could end the terrorist threat to the U.S.

Wrong, says Clark -- this policy is making the U.S. less secure. Safety can come only through joint intelligence and police work with close allies in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, he says, and through a greater focus on homeland security; regime change is a diversion. "Not only did the Bush Administration misunderstand the lessons of modern war, it made a policy blunder of historic proportions," he writes.

-- The Rumsfeld doctrine of making the U.S. military a smaller, more mobile, more high-tech force is responsible for the failure to capture or kill Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and for the postwar chaos in Iraq. Clark, a four-star U.S. Army general, places the current debate over transforming the military within a broader fight between the Air Force and Army that goes back to World War II. This is one of the more intriguing aspects of his book. Clark says that the Air Force has been trying for decades to prove that it can win wars alone, without the Army, through decisive and devastating air power. Rumsfeld, of course, is an ex-Navy pilot and a believer in air power. Clark concedes that air power won out in Serbia and Kosovo. But while he backs high-tech warfare, Clark also sees boots on the ground as essential. Special Ops units working with the Air Force couldn't destroy al Qaeda, but a division of Army soldiers might have. "It was a strategic opportunity lost."

-- Iraq may destroy the all-volunteer Army. Clark spends dozens of pages exalting the bravery and abilities of the men and women of the armed forces in his book. But he warns that the U.S. Army is not an army of occupation. The "quasi-imperial" America envisioned by the neocons in the Bush Administration is not matched by the military force that is supposed to create it. Nor should it be, according to Clark. He argues that the U.S. military is built for war-fighting, not long-term policing. It is a relatively small force (just 500,000 active Army troops), composed of volunteers, many of whom are married, with family commitments. Rapid and frequent rotation back to families for the enlisted -- and to their jobs for the reservists -- is crucial to maintaining the volunteer force. With Iraq tying down so many troops, that's not happening.

-- American unilateralism is bad military policy and bad foreign policy. Clark sharply criticizes the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States of America paper that postulates a unilateral, preemptive foreign policy for the country. He argues that the U.S. leverages its military and political power around the world through multilateral institutions such as NATO and the U.N. and that abandoning them has cost it dearly in Iraq. In effect, he says that the U.S. doesn't do nation-building very well and should outsource it to the U.N. Clark also dislikes talk of an American Empire. "Old ideas of empire have to be replaced with a new strategic vision."

That vision, of course, is the exit strategy out of Iraq. Clark says the U.S. must return to its multilateral roots and get Europe to share the burden in Iraq. He concedes that NATO and the U.N. need reform but says this can occur only through constructive U.S. leadership. Above all, he says the military should be powerful enough to achieve its goals but be used only as a last resort and with allies, if possible. Sounds much like the Powell Doctrine.

Winning Modern Wars succeeds on many levels, including the Stephen E. Ambrose-like description of battles and tactics used by General Tommy Franks in pacing the war. Clark clearly admires the courage and capabilities of the soldiers on the ground. But he also presents a cogent critique of Pentagon leadership and White House politics. As a military man, his insights go beyond the predictable Republican-Democratic partisan dialogue. It's a valuable perspective no matter which candidate you vote for.

By Bruce Nussbaum in New York

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