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Wesley K. Clark was Supreme Allied Commander for Europe (NATO) and ran the U.S.-led war in Kosovo. Clark is expected to announce this week whether he will be a candidate for the U.S. presidency. He spoke on Sept. 2 with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels.

NATHAN GARDELS: With the car-bombing assassination of Ayatollah Hakim in Najaf last week, and before that the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, the U.S. occupation of Iraq has gone badly awry. How do you assess the situation?

WESLEY CLARK: The Bush administration still does not have an overall strategy in Iraq, and that is putting American soldiers in a situation of great difficulty. The mission in Iraq is very demanding. It requires much more than good soldiers.

We went into Iraq without an overarching political strategy that made sense, so we lost crucial time early on. When you lose time like that in a mission, you lose a lot, because it is then when you make an impact on the population.

Of course, America does not use the ruthless methods of the old Soviet Union, and I wouldn't suggest we ever do. But when the Soviets took over eastern Poland in 1939 after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, they had a plan. They had people identified in every village before they moved in. The United States went into Iraq relatively clueless in this respect.

Now, we're trying to put this together after the fact. And America has to, because it has to be successful. But it is now a real challenge.

GARDELS: As the American election season gets under way, is it politically viable to boost the U.S. troop level to enhance security?

CLARK: Secretary (of Defense Donald) Rumsfeld is en route Iraq to assess the situation. That will provide the political cover to send in more troops -- or to change the policy. You can't make changes in big policies without showing that some top-level assessment is taking place. Otherwise, it looks like the administration doesn't know what it is doing -- which, of course, is true.

GARDELS: Why not work with the United Nations for a resolution that would enable other nations to come in and help while the United States still keeps "unified command"?

CLARK: It is not that simple. You have to get agreement from the other countries on exactly what the scope of the U.S. decision-making role will be.

In Bosnia, the United States led the military, but the European "high representative" led the political and economic effort. In Kosovo, the United Nations led the political component, and the United States rotated the military command.

In Iraq, it will be difficult for the United States to claim it is under a U.N. mandate while still maintaining political control and military direction.

Under such a circumstance it will be very hard for other countries to go into Iraq because they won't have the capacity to produce on-the-ground intelligence to keep their troops safe from terrorism. They would be putting their troops into a very dangerous situation that they are not trained or prepared to handle.

It is possible that Indian troops might go in because the United Nations will pay, which means the United States will pay. There might be some Pakistanis, which would be helpful since they are Muslims. But it is not clear how effective these small contributions can be. But you won't get many other countries, if any.

GARDELS: The logical course, then, at least in the short term, is to increase U.S. troops to get the security situation under control.

CLARK: The problem is there aren't that many more American troops. The Army can't quite replace what is there now. The standard is that it needs a 3-1 margin over any commitments overseas in order to replenish forces. Otherwise, you are just consuming your force. The United States is basically doing that now, rotating the troops that are there. And it may well lose some of those troops, who will leave the military, if there are continuing hardship redeployment tours.

GARDELS: The argument of the Bush administration going into war was that this was about the imminent danger of mass destruction weapons. Now the public is being told that this is about rebuilding the entire Middle East, something that will take decades and billions. Will the American public support this war through the back door?

CLARK: I did not see the threat of imminent danger before the war, but that is what they said. In effect, Americans were taken to war under false pretenses. If someone sold you a washing machine under false pretenses, you'd take him to the Better Business Bureau.

This president needs to be held accountable to the American people for this false pretense.

GARDELS: Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz now says "Iraq is the central battle in the war on terrorism." Do you agree?

CLARK: It is central in the sense that if the United States loses, it loses big because it would show lack of resolve. Yet, if the United States wins, it has won nothing! What does winning in Iraq do to end terrorism?

I've seen reports just recently that U.S. intelligence now knows that Osama bin Laden is in the mountains of western Pakistan. Why aren't we going after Osama bin Laden? Why isn't the central battle in the war on terrorism to take out his headquarters?

Why was the "central battle" going after Iraq? Its terrorism programs were a joke. Saddam was the last person in the Arab world who would have given any weapons to Islamic terrorists because he didn't trust them not to use those weapons on him! He had their mothers, brothers and daughters locked up, ready to slit their throats, if those he suspected got out of line.

GARDELS: So, two years after Sept. 11, the United States is putting all its resources in the wrong battle?

CLARK: I think so.

GARDELS: As a result, for America, just as there was once a missile gap that threatened the United States in the Cold War, now there is a security gap?

CLARK: That is true. This whole thing has been a strategic blunder.

GARDELS: How do we get out of that blunder?

CLARK: Now that the United States is there, only by winning on the ground. That means staying there long enough to do what should have been planned before the military campaign -- "Iraqisizing" the operation as rapidly as possible and building a semi-democratic political structure strong enough, and military institutions capable enough, to withstand threats internally and from their neighbors.

(c) 2003, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 9/2/03)