I’ve made a point of not editorializing about my interview with Wes Clark. I’d rather just let the plain text speak for itself (even my endless repetition of the word “obviously”) and people can make up their own minds.
But I’ll make one exception because of the article that appears in the New York Sun today. The front page story in the Sun takes Clark to task for this passage in the interview â¦
Clinton administration: broad minded, visionary, lots of engagement. Did a lot of work. Had difficulty with two houses in congress that [it] didn’t control. And in an odd replay of the Carter administration, found itself chained to the Iraqi policy — promoted by the Project for a New American Century — much the same way that in the Carter administration some of the same people formed the Committee on the Present Danger which cut out from the Carter administration the ability to move forward on SALT II.
The piece in the Sun doesn’t just disagree with Clark’s point. They portray it as some bizarre or even unhinged misunderstanding of the main currents US foreign policy.
The author, Ira Stoll, got Bill Kristol to say “It’s really a little bit crackpot. I don’t think Clinton was really following the PNAC script. We called for regime change. Last I looked, Saddam was still there when Clinton left. Maybe he got confused.”
Stoll also got Randy Scheunemann — less publicly known, but an important neocon voice in DC — to say Clark’s comments were “bizarre.” “The Clinton administration was on the verge of cutting a deal with Saddam. If they would have followed the Iraq policy of PNAC, they would have empowered the Iraqi opposition instead of going around denigrating it. This is a guy who could barely win a war in Kosovo. Now Wesley Clark is running for president by running against a think tank?”
This is, to put it generously, a lot of doubletalk.
Here’s my take on this.
When I interviewed Clark that passage was the one that struck me most and the one that stood out in my mind. The analogy hadn’t occurred to me before. But it’s extremely apt. And the backroom politicking over Iraq is something I know a bit about.
Why it stuck in my mind was that it showed not only a deep grasp of foreign policy issues but an equally canny sense of the informal and extra-governmental ways policy gets hashed out in Washington. More than anything it signaled an understanding that what we’ve been seeing for the last two years is part of a much longer history stretching back into the late 1960s.
The point is that the CPD and PNAC advocacy were both cases in which outside pressure groups — groups of neoconservatives — basically B-teamed the given administration, getting around their flank by working congress and the media to force the administration’s hand or make certain policy options politically unviable.
With Iraq policy this involved getting the Clinton administration off its policy of “dual containment” and toward one which, on paper at least, embraced the principle of “regime change” as American policy. This in fact was what happened with the passage of the Iraq Liberation Act in late 1998. The embryonic PNAC and other prominent neoconservatives worked the press, lobbied in congress, coordinated with the INC, and the then-weapons inspectors to push for a harder line against Iraq. And in significant ways they succeeded.
This isn’t a secret or a slur. It’s something the neocons see, with some good reason, as a feather in their cap.
The Clinton administration never truly embraced the hawkish position. But what the Iraq hawks were focused on was setting down benchmarks, the principle of “regime change” as official policy, official monetary support from Chalabi’s INC, widely signed public letters advocating a more hawkish policy, and so forth.
This all got underway in mid-1996 and followed through more or less through the end of the administration. Much of the big stuff took place during 1998, in part because there was a quite conscious effort (one of the architects walked me through it a year or so ago) to use Clinton’s weakness during the Monica scandal to advance the ball, so to speak. Once it was clear that Gore was Clinton’s chosen successor the lobbying/mau-mauing shifted to him, with the vice president’s advisor Leon Fuerth tapped to tend to their care and feeding.
The details of all this are too complicated to go into at the moment. But Clark’s point isn’t “crackpot” or “bizarre.” He’s got it exactly right. The analogy to the late Carter administration is quite apt. And Kristol, Schhuenemann <$Ad$> Stoll each know it. Indeed, they were each in their own way part of it.
There’s nothing untoward about this. This is what democracy’s about — organizing people, pressuring elected leaders, shaping opinion, and so forth.
But when you see these slashing words from the neocons against Clark, it’s not because he’s “confused” about anything. It’s because he’s got their number. And they know it.
One more example of the quality of this piece. Stoll notes that …
While Howard Dean has been critical of Saudi Arabia, few other mainstream politicians of either party have been openly at odds with Egypt, which is the no. 2 recipient of American foreign aid and which has a peace accord with Israel. Pakistan, meanwhile, has been widely praised for assisting America in the campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Extreme? Not something noted by ‘mainstream politicians’? Ira, don’t trip yourself up here. Calling a spade a spade when it comes to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt is the neocon position. It’s your position. Portraying it as extreme here for the tactical purposes of this one article won’t stand up well when you’re making the self-same argument next week.
Oh what a tangled web we weave …