Steve Sachs Duke


Sunday, January 18, 2004


An op-research field day, Part III: Prof. Mark Kleiman responds to the post below:

Sachs makes, I think, at least one plain error. He contrasts Clark's later critique of the haste with which the war was started with his earlier praise for the decision to move on Baghdad in March rather than waiting until more ground troops were in place. But those weren't at all the same decision.

It's perfectly consistent to say that the war could and should have been postponed until the fall, but that, having started it in the winter, it was wise to take the enemy capital quickly rather than slowly.

Here's the paragraph in full from the original op-ed:

Still, the immediate tasks at hand in Iraq cannot obscure the significance of the moment. The regime seems to have collapsed -the primary military objective and with that accomplished, the defence ministers and generals, soldiers and airmen should take pride. American and Brits, working together, produced a lean plan, using only about a third of the ground combat power of the Gulf War. If the alternative to attacking in March with the equivalent of four divisions was to wait until late April to attack with five, they certainly made the right call.

As I wrote in the initial post, it's perfectly possible that Clark meant it was the right decision only in terms of military preparedness. But the decision to invade in March was not up to the generals or even the defense ministers; it was made by the commander-in-chief, and involved vast diplomatic as well as military concerns. Given that Clark is elsewhere in the op-ed deeply concerned with the diplomatic ramifications of the war, I find it very odd that he would praise the decision to invade in March from a purely military perspective without indicating any potential diplomatic benefit to waiting (and building a larger coalition in the meantime). This is especially true given that Clark has subsequently spoken out against the administration's rush to war. Consider this March 19 exchange between Clark and a reporter for an Australian radio station:

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: General Clark is one of the few men to have led allied troops into battle since the Cold War. Operation Allied Force, the bombing campaign in Kosovo, went ahead despite a Russian veto in the United Nations Security Council. He says the timing of this war has been chosen by the US President.

WESLEY CLARK: This is purely elective. It's elective surgery, right now. But at some point we were going to have to deal with Saddam Hussein, and the simple truth is we could have waited a month or two, we could have waited if that had been able to produce the kind of diplomatic consensus we needed.

I wasn't on the inside of the diplomatic process, I'm sorry it looks like we're going ahead without the kind of strong diplomatic consensus that would make the war and this achromat easier. [sic--perhaps "its aftermath"?] But ultimately we were going to have to deal with Saddam Hussein; he's in a rough neighbourhood, he's got a bad track record.

I don't see any consistent thread that ties these views together. If we could have waited a month or two without any significant reduction in our military effectiveness, why was attacking in March the right call? Wouldn't the potential diplomatic gains far outweigh any costs in preparedness?

Kleiman also argues that Clark's praise of Bush and Blair reflects his strength of character:

Sachs also thinks it inconsistent for Clark to praise Bush and Blair for boldness and resolve, while criticizing the substance of their decision. He points out that Howard Dean, for example, would never praise Bush for his "resolve." That's right, of course. Dean wouldn't. But that suggests to me merely that Clark is more generous in spirit than Dean, or than the average politician.

Again, here's the full paragraph from the op-ed:

As for the political leaders themselves, President Bush and Tony Blair should be proud of their resolve in the face of so much doubt. And especially Mr Blair, who skilfully managed tough internal politics, an incredibly powerful and sometimes almost irrationally resolute ally, and concerns within Europe. Their opponents, those who questioned the necessity or wisdom of the operation, are temporarily silent, but probably unconvinced. And more tough questions remain to be answered.

Contrast this with what Clark said in the Oct. 9 Democratic Debate in Phoenix -- that the war in Iraq "was an unnecessary war, it was an elective war, and it's been a huge, strategic mistake for this country." This sentiment is entirely absent from the April op-ed, and I just don't buy the explanation from generosity of spirit. Not even Clark would accept this interpretation; in the same debate, he said that "I did praise George Bush and Tony Blair," but only "for sticking with the offensive in Iraq once it had begun." In other words, Clark claimed, he thought Bush and Blair showed resolve by not ending the military campaign halfway-through, once the bombs had already started falling. But this interpretation makes even less sense--there was no chance that the war would have been halted during the three weeks before Baghdad fell. And the "opponents" who created the "doubt" were questioning "the necessity or wisdom of the operation," not whether we should have stopped at Basra.

Remember, the overwhelming impression left by the November speech was that the war, however well conducted, was a huge mistake. Although Clark did indicate in the op-ed the need for a great deal of additional work before a peaceful and democratic Iraq would emerge, none of that hints at any reluctance regarding the decision to move against Iraq--this is an op-ed that could have just as easily been written by Joe Lieberman. Contrast this with a speech by another prominent critic of the war, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.); while wholeheartedly supporting American troops, Byrd leaves no uncertainty regarding his opposition.

I don't mean to punish a presidential candidate for holding subtle views, or for speaking his mind in ways that don't lend themselves to sound-bites. Perhaps it's possible, if one starts with the assumption of Clark's consistency, to torture out a coherent meaning for his conflicting statements. But if we instead hold Clark to the same standard of clarity to which we would hold any other public figure, it looks like he's trying to take something back.

UPDATE: The other Steve Sachs endorses Clark.




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