Gen. Clark’s Next War: Conquer the Democrats?

By E.J. Kessler

Published January 31, 2003, issue of January 31, 2003.
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As President Bush beats the drums for war with Iraq and the Democratic presidential candidates scramble to articulate their own foreign policy visions, one figure on the national political scene is bringing military credentials earned more recently than the Vietnam War era to bear on the debate.

That figure is General Wesley Clark, the supreme allied commander of NATO during the Kosovo war and CNN military analyst, who is increasingly mentioned as a “draft pick” presidential candidate for the Democrats.

Clark prefers to refer to himself as a “non-candidate,” but in a wide-ranging interview with the Forward managed to touch on the kinds of topics — his foreign policy stands, his views on the Middle East and his little-known Jewish roots — that are bound to generate interest in Democratic circles.

An Arkansas-raised Rhodes scholar who ranked first in his class at West Point, Clark is credited with helping stop the genocide in the former Yugoslavia in 1999 by bombing Slobodan Milosevic’s forces. Since then he has emerged as one of the foremost military critics of American unilateralism. He forcefully articulates a doctrine that boils down to “in order to succeed against tyrants, you must have every ally on board,” and casts a cold light on the actions of this and previous administrations.

While it would not have been possible politically for the Clinton administration to declare a national mobilization against terrorism, he said, “it could have taken more risks and put troops on the ground in Afghanistan” instead of merely lobbing missiles after Al Qaeda attacks on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, he said. But then again, he said, the United States was “complicit” in terrorism because the Reagan administration, through the Saudis, “encouraged and financed” the spread of Wahhabism, the fundamentalist Muslim theology whose most extreme version forms the core of Osama bin Laden’s ideology. The Reagan administration “thought Wahhabism was conservative but not extremist,” Clark said. “We probably have to take some blame [for the terrorism] ourselves.”

Raised a Southern Baptist by his mother in Little Rock — his father died when he was 4, and his mother remarried — Clark is the grandson of a Jew, Jacob Nemerovsky, who escaped from the pogroms of Czarist Russia in about 1894-95. He remembers his father, Benjamin Kanne, a lawyer who served in Chicago’s Corporation Counsel, as “a happy man who loved life.”

Still, it wasn’t until he was in his 20s that Clark learned that he descends from “generations of rabbis” from Minsk, as he told the Forward in a telephone interview. “We did a genealogy,” he said. He keeps in touch with a large Jewish family dispersed from Georgia to California.

Clark debunked press reports that came out during the 1990s suggesting that his family’s Jewish refugee background influenced his fight for the Kosovars. “I don’t know if it had any direct impact,” he said. “I was trying to do my duty at the time. Everybody has a responsibility to do his duty.”

But he credits his Jewish background with raising his consciousness to the civil rights movement. He has distinct memories of the Little Rock integration crisis of 1957, when he was 12. “I saw first hand the racial prejudice, the civil disobedience, the intolerance,” he said. As an adult, “I’ve often gone back to that experience. It’s something I’ve related to.”

He also cited his Jewish background in relation to his feeling “sick” that in 1994 the “U.S. didn’t encourage the U.N. to stop the genocide” in Rwanda. “When you can make a difference, you should,” he said.

Clark would like to keep Israel out of the hostilities brewing in Iraq. “I don’t think Israel needs to take any position in the war…. I would hope Israel does not get involved,” he said. “I think Saddam Hussein would like to widen the conflict but we’ll be adroit enough militarily to prevent him from striking Israel in any significant manner.”

Clark also does not support a NATO or American military presence in the territories. “At some point there may need to be a military interposition of forces but I would argue against that until there’s a political agreement,” he said, adding that without any agreement such a force would become a target of the wrath of both Israelis and Palestinians.

Clark has been touring the United States speaking about his book, “Waging Modern War” (PublicAffairs), while quietly feeling out Democratic fundraisers and party officials such as Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe.

Still, he denies that he is running for president. “I have said I am not a candidate. I have not raised political money. I am not affiliated as a member of a political party,” he said.

While Clark does not describe himself as a Democrat, he leans liberal on domestic policy. “I grew up in an armed forces that treated everyone as a valued member of the team,” he said. “Everyone got healthcare, and the army cared about the education of everyone’s family members. It wasn’t the attitude that you find in some places, where people are fending for themselves and the safety net doesn’t work.”

Some Democrats are skeptical, however, that Clark has what it takes to mount a campaign in 2004.

“There’s no question Wesley Clark would bring a lot to the party and field,” said Democratic strategist Mark Mellman. “But the reality is for all these candidates it is getting a little late, especially for those who don’t have a political organization in place in places like Iowa and New Hampshire. Despite having a compelling message, it may be late to set a place at the table as a practical matter.”

Others, however, say Clark’s strengths could trump the field. Morton Abramowitz, a State Department veteran with whom Clark worked in Kosovo, called Clark “a fighter, a determined battler” and said Clark’s military experience gives the general an advantage in an area in which the other Democratic candidates are “woefully deficient.”

“He comes as a commanding figure,” Abramowitz said. “He’s run things. What has Joe Lieberman run?”

Abramowitz dismissed the idea that it is too late for Clark to consider a run for president in 2004.

“Late? So was Ulysses S. Grant. So was Dwight Eisenhower,” he said.

The general, a dynamic speaker, has also captured the imagination of many young Democratic activists and fundraisers who are looking for an alternative to the gray “six pack” of declared candidates.

“‘Undecided’ is leading the polls in the Democratic primary,” said David Pollak, chairman of Democratic Leadership for the 21st Century, a political and public policy organization for young Democrats in New York, under whose auspices Clark spoke last month. “General Clark has as good a chance as any to knock ‘undecided’ out of the top spot.”

Pollak said that if the Iraq war produces military turmoil, Democrats might turn to Clark just as New York City turned to an unproven politician, media mogul Michael Bloomberg, to cope with the economic turmoil after the September 11 attacks. “I don’t think anybody has this locked up.”

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