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A soldier and a politician

Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism, and the American Empire; Gen. Wesley K. Clark; PublicAffairs: 220 pp., $25

October 12, 2003|Andrew J. Bacevich | Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University, is the author of "American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy" and editor of a new collection of articles, "The Imperial Tense: Prospects and Problems of American Empire."

Although George W. Bush's war against Iraq has inspired a spate of quickie books, this is the first by someone who openly covets the president's job. For that reason -- and for little else, as it turns out -- the amalgam of potted history and political broadside that is "Winning Modern Wars" merits attention.

When retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark announced his intention to seek the presidency after months of media-stoked teasing, he brought to the political arena considerable assets: an impressive (although not unblemished) military resume, a soldierly bearing and a cool, confident demeanor. That said, he entered the race as something of a cipher. The political views of this would-be Eisenhower -- hitherto known to the public chiefly as a CNN talking head -- were largely a matter of speculation. Here, Clark fills in many of the blanks.

In the book's first half, the four-star general turned politician offers his own narrative of the major combat operations leading to the fall of Baghdad. Alas, only someone who managed to sleep through Operation Iraqi Freedom or spent the war confined to the international space station is likely to find the account informative. A brisk march across familiar terrain, it is devoid of colorful detail, fresh revelations or penetrating insight.

In Clark's telling, the war deserves to be enshrined as a remarkable military triumph of the fighting troops, upon whom he lavishes unstinting praise. At the same time, he says, the campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein was riddled with egregious missteps -- all attributable to the war's civilian architects. He mocks the Bush administration's expectation of Iraqis welcoming British and U.S. forces as liberators. And he is scathingly critical of the Pentagon's slapdash plan for occupying and rehabilitating Iraq. "Defeating military forces was necessary to win the battle," he writes, "but it was not sufficient to win the war." The administration's inability to grasp the nonmilitary or post-combat dimensions of "modern war" constitutes the focal point of the general's attack.

Having dispatched Iraqi Freedom, Clark shifts to the hallowed tradition of the campaign tract. The second half begins with a biting assessment of Bush's handling of the global war on terrorism and his overall approach to governance. It concludes with a peek at Clark's World, sure to warm the cockles of would-be supporters seeking assurance that beneath the tunic of their man on horseback beats an authentically liberal heart.

Refusing to concede to Bush the mantle of heroic war leader, Clark tags the president with "ultimate responsibility" for Sept. 11, a disaster that occurred, after all, on his watch. He faults Bush for having entertained a lackadaisical attitude toward terrorism and homeland security prior to the terrorist attacks and for having pursued a "seriously flawed" approach ever since.

Chief among those flaws has been Bush's inability, two years into the war on terrorism, to deliver decisive results. Thus, says Clark, the Afghan campaign, advertised as a spectacular success, has been anything but. With Osama bin Laden still unaccounted for and his operatives "scattered -- not destroyed," Operation Enduring Freedom remains unfinished business.

In this context, the Bush administration's obsession with Saddam Hussein qualifies at best as a distraction and at worst as a potentially fatal diversion. To make regime change in Baghdad the centerpiece of U.S. strategy was, according to Clark, to misconstrue the existing threat, which derives not from states but from shadowy networks like Al Qaeda. Bush's massive and open-ended adventure in Iraq leaves efforts to root out those networks and to protect the homeland under-resourced -- a condition likely to worsen, according to Clark, if the administration moves against Damascus, Tehran or other regimes it has in its sights.

Moreover, in his rush for a showdown with Hussein, Bush alienated friends and allies, fueled anti-Americanism and, in the eyes of many abroad, managed to "make us the enemy," Clark says. By invading Iraq and disregarding the objections of the world's remaining powers (Britain excepted), Bush "squandered the chance to create a strong international coalition that could address the problems of terrorism comprehensively," with others sharing the burden and the sacrifice.

For this particular general's taste, Bush and his trigger-happy lieutenants are far too enamored of war and too quick to view force as "the only effective play in the U.S. repertoire." To deflect attention from festering problems at home, Bush is militarizing U.S. foreign policy to an unprecedented degree. Clueless when it comes to dealing with pressing domestic concerns, his administration instead nurses fantasies of what Clark calls a "New American Empire," using U.S. military might to remake the Arab world in our own image.

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