Monday, October 27, 2003


OK, I haven't read Wesley Clark's Winning Modern Wars. Maybe it's not what the title suggests it is -- maybe it's much more about Wesley Clark the presidential wannabe than about war. But the thrust of Max Frankel's review in this past Sunday's New York Times seems to be that the book is meretricious, duplicitous, and utterly without merit merely because it was written with an election in mind:

...the general cannot camouflage the partisan thrust of his polemic. His deft review of the battlefield tactics that won Baghdad in less than a month is merely the preface to a bitter, global indictment of George W. Bush. The president and his administration are condemned for recklessly squandering a brilliant military performance on the wrong war at the worst possible time, diverting resources and talent from the pursuit of Al Qaeda, neglecting urgent domestic needs and dissipating the post-9/11 sympathy and support of most of the world.

...the war in Iraq, though generally well fought, was a costly diversion. ''Taking down Saddam became a hobbyhorse'' for the group around Rumsfeld even before they achieved authority over the Pentagon. And they exploited 9/11 as ''a gift-wrapped opportunity'' to try to ''clean up the Middle East.'' So instead of concentrating on a ''knockout blow'' against Al Qaeda, they turned the focus to Iraq and let the terrorists scatter from Afghanistan.

As portrayed by Clark, the attack on Saddam Hussein -- without evidence to link him to Al Qaeda -- was not only wrong but deeply cynical. It bespoke a cold war mind-set of assigning terrorists a state sponsor, a ''face'' that could be more easily attacked. ''It was almost certain to be successful. It emphasized U.S. military strengths and built on a decade of preparation for a refight of the gulf war.''

The benefit of toppling Hussein is only faintly acknowledged: ''All else being equal the region and the Iraqi people were all better off with Saddam gone. But the U.S. actions against old adversaries like Saddam have costs and consequences that may still leave us far short of our objectives of winning the war on terror -- or, in themselves, may actually detract from our larger efforts.'' (Don't be fooled by those conditional ''mays''; the general knows how to protect a rhetorical flank.)

Obviously, I have a problem with Frankel's contempt because I agree with every point he ascribes to Clark. But what bugs me is that Frankel seems to be suggesting that it's simply inappropriate to write a campaign book full of criticisms of the president you'd like to unseat.

The danger, I guess, is that voters might actually vote for president based on candidates' positions on real issues if candidates are permitted to write pointed books in which they discuss those issues.

We can't have that. Presidential elections aren't supposed to be about issues -- they're supposed to be about which candidate gets along better with the journalists covering him; they're supposed to be about which candidate embarrasses himself by switching to "earth tones" after getting clothing tips from a female adviser; they're supposed to be about which candidate is more outraged that a former president was fellated in the White House by a woman not his wife.

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