I can't tell you yet what I thought of the Democratic presidential debate because I haven't seen it yet. I'm watching the taped version on MSNBC in a few minutes. But let me say a few things about this issue of Clark and the Republican party.
I went back and looked in the Nexis database to get a sense of what people were saying in 2001 --- that is to say, before people had any interest in spinning one way or another. Also mixed in is my sense of the situation from watching Clark since the Kosovo War in 1999 and more closely since Clark wrote Waging Modern War in the summer of 2001.
So here's my sense of this.
Clark moved back to Arkansas after leaving the Army to get into business and make some money and in all likelihood to get into politics. He got politically involved and basically kept people guessing. Republican scuttlebutt had him running for office as a Republican; Democratic scuttlebutt had him running as a Democrat. He gave this speech to a Pulaski County Republican Committee dinner. But a little context from a May 20th, 2001 article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette â¦
Pulaski County Committee Chairman Greg Racicot invited Wesley Clark as keynote speaker. Former supreme allied commander in Europe and leader of NATO during the recent Kosovo campaign, Clark now lives in Little Rock and works in high-technology venture capital at Stephens Inc. A hot-ticket guest speaker, Clark plans a similar appearance before the Democrats, his wife, Gert, confided.
Then when everyone was sure he was going to run for something, he signed on as a CNN military analyst in late August 2001. Here's a blurb from the time in US News' Washington Whispers â¦
Just when Arkansas political bigs figured that local-boy-done-good Wesley Clark was set to make a bid for public office, he's surprised them all by signing on as a military and current affairs analyst with CNN, Whispers learns. Clark, a retired Army general who was one of the U.S. military bosses in Bosnia, is expected to be a regular on the cable network as it scrambles to recover viewers who've switched to Fox News Channel and MSNBC. Since retiring, Clark has been a fixture on the Arkansas political trail, speaking at key events normally reserved for campaigning pols. That's led most state politicians to assume he's planning to run for Senate or governor. Clark, however, keeps them guessing. And not just about his future: folks don't even know if he's a Republican or Democrat.
(Signing on as a military policy analyst for CNN a couple weeks before 9/11 does seem to signal an uncanny sense of timing, but I'll leave that for another time.)
Now my sense of Clark's political direction goes like this. I take Clark at his word that he was simply not a partisan when he was in the military. (Spencer Ackerman -- he of busting the WMD intel story wide open fame -- has a really good article in the new New Republic discrediting the idea that Clark was somehow Clinton's crony or one of the 'Clinton generals.' I strongly recommend Spencer's piece.) And as late as May 2001 he was not above saying kind words about the president's foreign policy team. But at the same time, during the first half of 2001, he was writing a book that was very much at odds with the president's foreign policy, in some cases explicitly so. And I think if you read the things Clark was saying as a commentator you can see him getting increasingly disenchanted with the radical direction President Bush was taking the nation's foreign policy in. You can see some signs of this at the very beginning of the administration, as in this exchange from February 2001 on MSNBC, and then progressively more so over time â¦
HOLT: General, I know this is a political question. But if we knew he had weapons of mass destruction and knew where they were, would you advise an air strike against those sites?
CLARK: Well, I think we're watching this at all times. And I think that the administration will look for that.
You know, we did the Desert Fox strikes two years ago because we thought that he had not agreed to the inspection visit. We knew where some of these weapons of mass destruction facilities were, and we took them out.
And if I were Saddam Hussein, I'd be quite concerned. If he's trying to do this again, he should expect that America and its allies will take the appropriate actions.
HOLT: Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, two names we associate with the Gulf War, now in big leadership positions. Do you think that will change, create more tension, perhaps bring the coalition as we knew it back together?
CLARK: Well, I think that we've got a very effective foreign policy team in this administration. I think they're going to do the right things.
But I think they're going to have to go into the Middle East, work with the allies there, go through the Persian Gulf and talk to people and get their feet on the ground first before they start making major moves.
A good piece I've found on Clark during this period is a column that Jim Pinkerton wrote in Newsday in July 2001. It's about Clark's book, but also about his views of the early stages of President's Bush's foreign policy.
Now, one final point. There's this idea afoot that Clark got into the Democratic party out of some sort of opportunism, and that this happened after 9/11. Frankly, this makes no sense. Is there really any time over the last two years that getting into the Democratic party would have seemed like a good way to get into office or advance politically? Particularly in a state like Arkansas which has been trending Republican? I mean, sad to say, but I don't see it. At the moment, President Bush is looking weaker and weaker. But that's pretty recent. Clark is clearly new to the Democratic party on many levels. But as explanations go, this strikes me as an awfully weak one.