The Long View: Winning Modern Wars

General Wesley Clark

General Wesley Clark

I might have said General Wesley Clark dropped out of the public eye because he is a throwback to a bygone era, but the popularity of Bernie Sanders belies that idea. Maybe he is just the wrong kind of throwback, the militaristic liberal of the mid twentieth century that complicates the narrative.

 Winning Modern Wars:
Iraq, Terrorism, and the American Empire
By General Wesley K. Clark, U.S. Army (Retired)
PublicAffairs, 2003
218 Pages, US$25.00
ISBN 1-58648-218-1

Books by presidential candidates usually consist of slogans and heart-warming anecdotes. This one, by the commander of NATO during the Kosovo War, at least has arguments to engage. That is not to say that the bulk of it is very substantial. Half of the 200 pages of text is a narrative and critique of the Iraq War of 2003, with some attention to the preceding Afghan campaign: interesting but not particularly original. (Speaking of originality, readers should not confuse this book with the almost identically titled Waging Modern War, which the author published in the spring of 2001.) The important sections of “Winning Modern Wars” are the last two: “Flawed Arguments, Flawed Strategy,” and “Beyond Empire: A New America.” These state arguments that link domestic and international politics in a way that has not happened since the earliest days of the republic.

For most of the 20th century, candidate Clark explains, American politics had been evolving toward a mildly redistributive welfare state. However, for the last thirty years, many Americans have believed their values to be under assault, on matters ranging from affirmative action to the perceived coddling of criminals. As a result, “the last third of the twentieth century saw a reaction – a sustained effort to reorder public and private power and responsibilities, reduce the reach of the federal government, and link the interests of the very wealthy to the sympathies of Middle America through tax cuts and the culture war.” The culture war at home spilled over into foreign affairs, merging with a “fierce nostalgia for visible battlefield success abroad.”

That link between foreign and domestic politics is Clark's general theory of why the Iraq War happened. However, unlike almost every other politician in American history who has perceived military adventure being driven by misguided domestic considerations, his solution is not isolationist: quite the opposite. “We should turn upside down nineteenth-century Britain's view that Britain has no permanent friends, only permanent interests,” he tells us. “In the West we must have permanent friends and allies and work to ensure our interests converge.” The point of his campaign is to reintegrate the United States into the international system in general, and with Europe in particular.

Wesley Clark is the transnational candidate. This scarcely makes him the tool of foreign interests. Like the Internet, the transnational class to which he belongs reaches across the globe; but also like the Internet, it remains anchored in the United States. Indeed, Clark's transnationalism is, in effect, the American progressive politics that emerged from the 1960s, repackaged as a global ideology.

In order for Clark's project to succeed, it is necessary that the Iraq War be seen as an unrepeatable mistake. Nonetheless, his account of the war itself is not altogether damning to the Bush Administration. His major point is that the planning left too little force on the ground to provide security in the postwar situation. This, he argues, was one of the fruits of the Bush Administration's unilateralism: “In attempting to retain full control, the Administration raised the costs and risks of the mission by preventing our use of the full array of tools available to win a modern war.”

The most important of these tools were the legitimacy and material support available from allies and multilateral organizations, such as Clark enjoyed while directing the campaign in Kosovo. The Kosovo War, in fact, is his paradigm for the new model of warfare. It's true that, except for the British, the allies in that campaign could not contribute much of the air power with which the war was almost exclusively fought. However, they were able to flood the Balkans with a gendarmerie in the aftermath. Even tiny Kosovo, with a population of four million, is policed by 60,000 peacekeepers.

One does not quite know what to say about Clark's use of NATO's Balkan endeavors as a model for the future. The region remains politically sullen and economically comatose. Kosovo still does not have a working system of commercial law; it also does not have a reliable electricity grid. Ethnic violence continues in a modest way, though now the perpetrators and victims are reversed. NATO's politically dictated inability to use ground troops required a cavalier attitude toward aerial attacks on civilian infrastructure. Kosovo is more peaceful than it was, of course. Clark did a good job, considering the constraints of the mission. However, we should remember that the peacekeepers did not create the peace; the exit of the Serbian Army did that. In effect, the outcome in the Balkans was based on finding a goal small enough to fit NATO's internal politics.

The same was true of the magnificent multilateral coalition that George W. Bush's father put together for the Gulf War of 1990-1991. Brimming with international legitimacy, it ensured that one of the most lopsided military victories in modern times would result in a political draw. This is not to say that Bush Senior was very keen to push on to Baghdad after the Iraqis were expelled from Kuwait. Nonetheless, the obvious preoccupation of the US with placating allies did make it possible for the Baathist regime to survive and reassert itself.

Clark does argue that the most recent Iraq War was unnecessary and improvident, even a distraction from America's real security needs. He suggests that, if some people in the Pentagon had their druthers, “every hour spent planning operations against Saddam would have been used against Al Qaeda.” Every hour? Somehow one doubts that the pursuit of a terrorist network requires the same amount or kind of effort as the prosecution of a middle-sized war. Clark has critical things to say about anti-terrorist measures in the United States. In some mysterious way, he finds them to be simultaneously too harsh and not serious enough. His chief complaint, though, is that the Administration was “seeking to use 9/11 as the basis for working another agenda, an agenda perhaps defined several years earlier, calling for the U.S. to use its military power to rearrange the Middle East, starting with Iraq.”

Well...yes. One might say the Bush Administration used 911 in much the way that Franklin Roosevelt's Administration used Pearl Harbor. The difference is that the Roosevelt Administration did have a plan that it had been looking for a way to implement, whereas all George W. Bush's Administration had were some policy options that had previously been regarded as too radical. In both cases, public disaster made it possible to deal with a growing constellation of threats that had been belittled or deferred for over a decade.

Clark is as aware of this as anyone else: “[D]uring the early 1990s, a witches' brew of Middle East and international groups emerged to shadow and threaten Americans...” One could say, though Clark does not put it this way, that Al Qaeda was not the worst of the dangers threatening the United States; it was just the first to strike. Clark says of these new threats that they “fell outside the mold to which the United States had become accustomed.” That's perfectly true. What Clark never seems to take on board is that the multilateral security system that grew up in the 20th century may also require fundamental rethinking.

That system had failed with respect to Iraq. We know now that Iraq had continuing programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, as well as to develop the means to deliver them. Some of these projects, particularly those to develop nuclear weapons, had been mothballed. Weapons stocks have not been found. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that Iraq was in substantial violation of the UN weapons-control regime, and that mere inspections would never have discovered the violations. The Baathist government was just waiting for the inspectors to go away.

Pretty much everybody knew this. Certainly the world's would-be proliferators of mass destruction knew it. They also knew that everyone else knew it, and were disposed to do nothing. The UN non-proliferation regime had become less than a scarecrow.

Clark runs through a list of criteria that should have been met before military action in Iraq began, but he emphasizes this one: “Imminence was the key.” Actually, the Bush Administration made clear before the war that imminence was precisely what it was trying to avoid, but suppose Clark is right, and that imminence was essential. Is it clear that imminence was lacking? Iran is within a year or two, maybe just months, of having nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. The stability of Saudi Arabia was being progressively undermined by the presence of American troops in the land of the Two Holy Places; the troops were there because the fragile Saudi regime was threatened even by the diminished military capacity of late Baathist Iraq. Either an Islamist revolution in Saudi Arabia, or the advent of Iran as a nuclear state, would have made the sanctions regime in Iraq unenforceable and irrelevant.

The problem with arguing that the Iraq War destabilized the region is that the region was not stable to begin with. The real question may not be whether the American attempt to reconstruct Iraq was precipitous, but whether it may already have been too late.

All this is by the way. The Clark campaign is not about Iraq. It is about the relationship of US domestic politics to the international system. Some of what he has to say is well taken. He characterizes the U.S. military as a “Clausewitzian” force, designed for “big battles and maximum violence.” It is not a garrison military, and historically has had little staying power abroad. For a volunteer force in particular, occupation duty can be unbearable and unsustainable. Moreover, he is quite right about maintaining the solidarity of the West, and of the need for the United States to participate collegially in international forums. Clark disparagingly compares the the idea of a “New American Empire,” an empire like the British Raj that he asserts the neoconservatives are conspiring to establish, with the “Virtual American Empire,” another name for which is globalization. The United States, he points out, is the greatest beneficiary of the network of treaties and international institutions that grew up after the Second World War. It would be folly to repudiate them now.

This is all perfectly true, but no one has seriously proposed doing any such thing. Not even William Kristol in a fever dream has advocated that the US found a “classic empire.” The Bush Administration's difficulty with international forums does not arise from Texan imperialism, but from the fact that large parts of the international system have shown themselves to be decadent, in the narrow sense of Jacques Barzun's formula: to will the end without being able to will the means.

Clark tells us: “The administration's resistance to fully engaging other states through NATO reflected a certain American 'attitude,' a lack of respect for the constitutional and political processes of other states...The United States was left wrestling with a hundred governments bilaterally...” In point of fact, the Bush Administration resisted engaging other states through NATO because of experience. Probably no experience was more relevant than Clark's own compromise settlement in Kosovo. We already got one of those for Iraq in 1991, and it was not good enough.

As a general matter, the author often seems more interested in preserving institutions than with achieving the goals for which the institutions were created. He says that, should the US military need to maintain a long occupation of Iraq, “we might lose the essence of the Army that fought its way so valiantly into Iraq.” Well, maybe, but is that how one should formulate the problem? When one speaks of a force as “Clausewitzian,” one usually means a force capable of carrying out the policies set by its government. In Clark's scheme of things, in contrast, it is the duty of government to set policy consistent with the institutional imperatives of the military. If some form of war is necessary, and the military can't do it, then is it necessity or the military that should change?

This brings us back to the culture-war issue. In this regard, Clark is simply reflecting common European misperceptions. The people who think of themselves as culture warriors, such as Patrick J. Buchanan, have little “nostalgia” for military glory. Like most real unilateralists, they are also isolationists. The other major ideological wing of contemporary conservatism, the Libertarians, dislike the military almost as much as they dislike taxes. In 2000, presidential candidate George W. Bush promised a more modest American foreign policy. That's what his constituents wanted. When 911 occurred, there were many people in the world who thought it was more or less what they had been waiting for or warning about. The culture warriors were not among them.

There is a way in which the author's sociological explanation of support for the war is more acute than he knows. Terms like “culture war” and “neoconservative” are usually bandied about as terms of disapprobation for the reaction against the liberalism of the 1960s. “Liberalism” has meant different things, some of them noble, in different times and places. Four decades ago in America, however, it came to mean a progressive politics that supports a confiscatory welfare state and is contemptuously indifferent to public safety. The “reaction” that Clark describes of the past 30 years generally took the form of renewed insistence on safe streets and working public institutions.

This progressive spirit lingers over the European Union. It also haunts many of the major international institutions. Its complaints against the Bush Administration are transnational forms of the complaints against the administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in New York City. Giuliani was, in effect, accused of distracting attention from the root causes of crime by actually reducing it. That is transnationalism today. That is what Wesley Clark is campaigning to defend.    

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site