FLASHBACK: September 26, 2003General Confusion Leads Democrats

(Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on September 26, 2003)

The website of the Los Altos (Calif.) Town Crier has probably never gotten as many hits on any single day as it did September 23, when the weekly paper printed its coverage of a 9-11 commemorative speech by retired Army Gen. Hugh Shelton.

The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff shocked his audience at the Foothill College Celebrity Forum when, in response to a question, he issued a blunt un-endorsement of the Democratic presidential field’s new boy wonder, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark.

“I’ve known Wes for a long time,” the Town Crier reported Shelton as saying. “I will tell you the reason he came out of Europe early had to do with integrity and character issues, things that are very near and dear to my heart. I’m not going to say whether I’m a Republican or a Democrat. I’ll just say Wes won’t get my vote.”

Such a denunciation of one retired general by another is extremely rare.

After Clark entered the race and immediately jumped to the top of the Democratic field, Shelton declined an interview with HUMAN EVENTS, and the specific “integrity and character issues” he hinted at remained a mystery. But his scathing attack on Clark’s character appears congruous with the former NATO Supreme Commander’s public record, which is marked by unprincipled inconsistency and poor judgment.

War Flip-Flop

Clark’s poor judgment led him in August 1994 into one of the greatest diplomatic catastrophes of the Clinton Era when he met, shook hands with, shared a laugh with, and even exchanged hats with Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic. The U.S. State Department in 1992 had listed Mladic as a suspected war criminal.

“It’s like cavorting with Hermann Goering,” an unidentified U.S. official told the Associated Press at the time, referring to the infamous Nazi war criminal.

The State Department had strongly discouraged Clark from meeting with Mladic, who was indicted by The Hague nine months later and remains a fugitive to this day. The photographs of the Clark-Mladic meeting created such a stir that State had to cable its embassies and reassure European leaders that U.S. policy on Bosnia had not changed.

Although the results may be less serious, Clark also showed poor judgment when he entered the presidential race on a pro-war, then an anti-war platform, in the space of two days.

“At the time, I probably would have voted for [the Iraq war resolution],” he said on September 18. This came as a huge surprise, since Clark was supposedly an anti-war candidate. He then backtracked: “But that’s too simple a question. . . . I don’t know if I would have or not. . . . On balance, I probably would have voted for it.”

The following day, he said just the opposite: “Let’s make one thing real clear: I would never have voted for this war. I’ve gotten a very consistent record on this.”

But his pro-war remarks could not be written off as a careless slip of the tongue. Last October, while campaigning on behalf of Katrina Swett in her unsuccessful race against Rep. Charlie Bass (R.-N.H.), Clark told reporters that he would counsel Swett to vote in favor of war.

And after Saddam’s statue was pulled down in Baghdad by gleeful Iraqis, Clark wrote in a column for the London Times, “Can anything be more moving than the joyous throngs swarming the streets of Baghdad? . . . President Bush and Tony Blair should be proud of their resolve in the face of so much doubt.”

Reporters, smelling blood, pressed Clark on his constantly shifting position, prompting his aide, Mary Jacoby, to try to massage the inconsistency and explain to a confused Clark his own position on the war.

“You said you would have voted for the resolution as leverage for a UN-based solution,” she said, to which Clark responded, “Right.”

But in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on Sept. 26, 2002, Clark sang a very different tune, basically parroting Bush’s position of regime change with or without UN approval.

“The President’s clear determination to act if the United Nations can’t provides strong leverage for under-girding ongoing diplomatic efforts,” he said. “If the efforts to resolve the problem by using the United Nations fail, either initially or ultimately, then we need to form the broadest possible coalition including our NATO allies and the North Atlantic Council if we’re going to have to bring forces to bear.”

Regardless of what Clark really believes (if he really believes anything), he was unable to take a consistent position on the issue liberals seem to care about most this year. He let himself become one more in of a field full of candidates tainted in Democrat eyes by their votes to authorize the Iraq War.

As early as August 1, Crossfire host Bob Novak was already pinning Clark down, accusing him in person of taking the position shared by Sen. John Kerry (D.-Mass.) and Rep. Dick Gephardt (D.-Mo.), both of whom voted for war but then changed their minds in a cynical attempt to win the Democratic presidential primary.

“You vote yes, but then you start dancing when you have some casualties in Iraq,” Novak acidly remarked.

The success of Clark’s sloppy entrance into the race highlights the weakness of the current Democratic field. With his announcement, the general rocketed to the top of the Democratic presidential polls at 22%, and a Gallup-CNN-USA Today poll even had him defeating President Bush in a head-to-head by three points.

Howard Dean suddenly seemed like yesterday’s flavor, falling to just 13% in spite of his huge grassroots-funded war chest and his strong, consistent, Bush-bashing, anti-war rhetoric that has proven a Democratic crowd-pleaser.

But Washington observers don’t expect the Clark phenomenon to last. The more Democrats learn about his record, the less likely they will be to choose him as their standard-bearer in 2004.

In spite of his honorable service record, Clark’s recent behavior suggests he may have a habit of stretching the truth even when it brings him no apparent benefit.

One particularly embarrassing whopper came in his June 15 appearance on Tim Russert’s “Meet the Press.” Russert pressed him about his contention that someone had been hyping a 9/11 connection to Saddam Hussein immediately after the September 11 terror attacks. From whom had this hype come, Russert asked?

A Call from Canada

“Well, it came from the White House,” Clark replied. “It came from people around the White House. It came from all over. I got a call on 9/11. I was on CNN, and I got a call at my home saying, ‘You’ve got to say this is connected. This is state-sponsored terrorism. This has to be connected to Saddam Hussein.'”

The White House denied this extremely serious accusation, prompting Clark to back away from it July 1 under questioning from Georgia talk show host Martha Zoller.

“I never got any of these calls from the White House,” Clark said. “I got a call from Canada, from a man who was running a Middle East think tank connected to other people in government, not necessarily the U.S. government.”

At first, Clark claimed his wife had taken the phone call, and then on Fox’s “Hannity and Colmes” that same night he said he had “personally gotten a call from a guy in Canada who is part of a Middle Eastern think tank who gets inside intelligence information.”

Clark refused to say who had called or what think tank he was affiliated with, and no one has yet been able to come up with any such Canadian “think tank.”

But Clark kept telling the story and adding to it. Appearing August 25 on MSNBC’s “Buchanan and Press,” he said, “A man from a-of a Middle East think tank in Canada, the man who’s the brother of a very close friend of mine in Belgium.”

Clark made another strange claim on Arizona’s News Radio KTAR August 26 that the White House had tried to get him fired from his position as a CNN commentator.

“The White House, actually back in February, apparently tried to get me kicked off CNN,” he said. “And they wanted to do this because they were afraid that I would raise issues with their conduct of the war.” Clark added that he had only heard rumors about this, and had no specific evidence.

Clark’s lack of credibility extends even to his choice of party label, and eventually this may be what hurts him most among Democratic primary voters.

On September 18, Clark told the New York Times that he had become a Democrat in 1992, “after listening to the early campaign appeals of a fellow Arkansan, Bill Clinton.” But on June 19, 2003, he said on CNBC’s Capital Report, “I haven’t crossed the bridge to becoming a Democrat.” A month later, he told Fox News’s Sean Hannity, “Look, I haven’t made a party commitment.”

Since announcing his campaign, Clark has adopted unambiguously liberal views on just about every issue imaginable. He says now that he is pro-abortion, wants open homosexuality in the military and supports gun control. Asked who is his favorite Supreme Court justice, he names liberal Stephen Breyer, calling him a “centrist.” He has also said he wants to repeal Bush’s tax cut, even making on “Meet the Press” the laughter-provoking statement that “I thought this country was founded on a principle of progressive taxation.”

Still, the liberals who dominate Democratic primary elections may find it difficult to accept Clark’s new-found across-the-board leftism as anything but blatant opportunism. The general told reporters last week, for example, that he had voted for both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

On June 4, 2001, U.S. News & World Report reported that Clark was considering a run for office as a Republican, after he had headlined a Republican fundraiser in Arkansas: “At a recent Republican fund-raiser, he heralded Ronald Reagan’s Cold War actions and George Bush’s foreign policy. He also talked glowingly of current President Bush’s national security team. Absent from the praise list: his former boss, ex-Commander in Chief Bill Clinton.”

“[W]hile he was voting for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, I was fighting against both of their policies,” shot back Kerry, the Democratic candidate who probably stands to lose the most support to Clark.

Comparisons between Clark and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower-the last general to be elected President-are very revealing. Unlike Ike, Clark has shown inconsistency and a stubborn unwillingness to admit that he is wrong even when he is on the record contradicting himself.