Opinion: Clark on Iraq Strategy

Retired Army General Wesley Clark
Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander/Former Democratic Presidential Candidate
Friday, August 26, 2005 2:00 PM

The growing demand for the U.S. to pull out of Iraq is raising a red flag to the administration. Winning the war in Iraq may require a new strategy. But what is it?

Retired Army General Wesley Clark , a supreme allied commander in Europe during the war in Kosovo and candidate for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, has a few ideas. He fears that without a new strategy, the Bush administration may be doomed to face a the failures of Vietnam. Clark believes President Bush has relied on American resolve instead of implementing effective and realistic policy changes.

Retired Army General Wesley Clark was online Friday, Aug. 26, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss measures needed to succeed in Iraq.

Read more: Before It's Too Late in Iraq.

The transcript follows.

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Hyattsville, Md.: I was reading with interest David Ignatius' column today on the Post. Mr. Ignatius suggests that the U.S. has a lot to gain strategically by forming a "strange bedfellows" alliance with Shiite leaders in Iraq and elsewhere (more to the point, Iran). What is your opinion on such a strategic alliance?

General Clark: It's good to know that there are Shi'ite elements about whom Americans can feel so positively. I think we should be working with all parties in the region, and in Iraq. But, it would be a mistake to tie ourselves so tightly to one point of view that that faction could claim we were allied with them exclusively. Remember, these people are competing against each other in settling age-old scores in the process. We are the newcomers. We want to be the source of regional cooperation and Iraqi consensus building--not regional conflict or civil war.

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Columbus, Ohio: Hello, General Clark. I served under you when you were the 3rd Brigade commander at Fort Carson and I was in the 1/8 Inf. What I would like to know is how we can possibly succeed in stopping the tide of Islamic terrorism and radical Islamic movements to subjugate the West and liberal democracies without waging offensive warfare against Islamic states and non-state entities that sponsor or perpetrate terrorism against the US and the West in general? We have to take the long view, just as our enemies do and continue to be willing to dissuade them from believing that we will quit and go home just as we did in Vietnam.

General Clark: Hi, thanks for your note and your service. I think we have to be very careful in how we think about who we are opposed to. Many of the Islamic states in the region are struggling against terrorists themselves. And while we may need to use force to arrest or take out any terrorist who is actually planning an attack against us. Our first principle should be to win people to our point of view if possible. This means winning an ideological struggle against militant Islamists. We do this by encouraging moderate Islam. By respecting human rights, by treating others with dignity even if they don't share our religious convictions, democratic heritage, or geo-strategic outlook. Force has to be used as a last resort only.

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Belmont, Ca.: General Clark, I agree with most everything in your-op-ed, except the part about flat out disbanding private militias. I agree the militias have to be tamed in some way, but couldn't trying to completely eliminate the militias stir up a real hornet's nest?

General Clark: Almost everything we stand for in Iraq will ultimately be controversial. The fighting associated with the efforts to craft the constitution demonstrate the strong feelings there. But the definition of a state is that it has the monopoly on the use of force within its borders. So long as there are private militias armed and trained in Iraq, there will be threats to the security and stability of the country. Of course, disbanding these militias can't be done without a lot of preparatory work. But, it can be done.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: How much of our problems in Iraq are due to military mishaps (i.e. DOD)? It seems that we place too much blame on Bush and not enough on Rumsfeld. Should the Pentagon really be coming up with the new strategy? Is our war methodology outdated?

General Clark: Basically Iraq is a problem for the Administration, and the President, not just the Pentagon. And the solution requires presidential-level leadership and diplomacy. The challenge of the Iraq mission is that just like Vietnam, the country cannot be isolated from influence beyond its borders. And if the administration fails to deal with the region, we risk ending up with another Vietnam-like outcome.

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Anonymous: What was the difference between the operations/planning in Kosovo versus in Iraq? What made the Kosovo operation successful?

General Clark: In Kosovo, we used force only as a last resort. And we had a post-war plan before we had a war plan. We also had full support of our allies, especially in the post-war, where we contributed only about 20% of the resources. And still, Kosovo has difficulties. The real difference is that with full international support, we have the staying power to see it through.

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Washington, D.C.: It's hard for me to envision anytime when even a small US troop presence in Iraq could be anything but a magnet for terrorism and destabilization of the Iraqi government. How can we ever get to the point, as in Korea or the Balkans, where a US troop presence is a force for stability and progress, not the other way around?

General Clark: Great question, and that's why I believe we should say we don't want permanent bases in Iraq. But, if the Iraqi government really gains legitimacy and if we provide the leadership in generating regional cooperation, then I suppose we could be asked to stay, and we would seriously have to consider this. For now, that seems a long time away.

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Kansas City, Mo.: In your op-ed, you indicate the need for a diplomatic track. Your proposals would clearly require a substantial increase in military and civilian personnel. How many total military and civilian personnel do you believe the administration should commit to support your vision for "a three-pronged diplomatic, political, and military strategy in place that will ultimately enable us to withdraw?"

General Clark: I do believe we will need more civilian personnel in Iraq. I don't have a figure for that, nor can I tell you how many more military are needed to work the borders. These aren't questions of strategy so much as issues of implementation. And, the Administration had the responsibility and capability for "costing out" proposals. For too long, we have been measuring military operations by numbers of troops rather than accomplishment of the mission. I think the Administration needs to put in whatever amount of "troops", military or civilian, are required. It's almost, but not quite, too late to succeed in leaving behind a stable, integral, and democratizing Iraq---the Administration shouldn't try to do it on the cheap.

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Mission Viejo, Ca.: Do you think that the American media is doing it job as far as reporting what is actually happening in Iraq? We tend only to get a political picture of what's going on. What are we missing?

General Clark: Iraq has always been like a three-layered cake. We see the top layer--the violence, the car bombings, the casualties, and Iraqi leaders shuttling back and forth between meetings. The second level down is really important, and that's how ordinary Iraqis are surviving. Every day in Iraq, people are going to work, getting married, having children, raising families and struggling to survive in an economy that doesn't produce jobs or provide protection for its citizens. And, there is a third level. That's the dialogue and interface among the various factions in Iraq and with their neighbors. So there's a lot happening that we don't see. It makes it very hard for the American people to judge what is happening there, or appreciate the hard work our soldiers are doing. But, people do have a general sense that things aren't going too well. And, at least compared to the rhetoric that got us into this, they are right.

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Falls Church, Va.: General Clark, I feel that we actually had more going for us in the way of local support in Vietnam than we do in Iraq, so I am not optimistic about a successful outcome from the current occupation. My question is about the fear of the consequences of withdrawal. Is it possible that we might actually be safer by getting out now and cutting what fuels much of the hatred of potential terrorists?

General Clark: We do have to plan on leaving Iraq. How we leave is important. An exit that leaves behind violence, chaos, and civil war will be viewed as a clear American defeat. And, it will supercharge terrorists recruiting, increase problems for American diplomacy elsewhere in the region, and increase the danger closer to home. So, we have to do the best we can to help the Iraqis construct a state that can provide for its people, secure its borders, and rejoin the world community. I would guess that if we can do this, then we will have a supporting relationship to Iraq for a long time, whether or not there are troops on the ground.

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Minneapolis, Minn..: I agree with what you have to say in your op/ed piece this morning. With that said, what is it that is keeping this administration from doing these things that will allow them to claim a real victory in Iraq? Why is there a reluctance to turn in a new direction, one that many experienced people are recommending? What will it take for this administration to start doing some of the things that you suggest need be done? Hope to see you in MN soon.

General Clark: The Administration got off to a wrong start in the region because it viewed Iraq as the first of possibly other military efforts to overthrow existing governments. Thus, Syria and Iran quickly realized that an American success in Iraq increased the risks they faced. So, instead of working to strengthen regional cooperation, even at the expense of talking to people we don't necessarily agree with, the Administration kept all its options open and its channels of communication closed. This appealed to some elements of the American public, who more or less bought on to the rhetoric of using military force pre-emptively. And, it's been very hard for the Administration to find a way out of the box its rhetoric has created.

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Coeur d'Alene, Id.: What are your feelings about the massive use of National Guard units in Iraq? Is it within the rights of each state's governor to recall his/her units?

General Clark: I think the Guard has done a great job in Iraq and we owe them and their families an enormous debt of gratitude. But the way the Guard is structured and federally funded, they've only done what was within the law and governors don't have the right to recall them when they have been federalized.

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Houston, Tex..: How would you respond to Cindy Sheehan and the other family members who believe their children have been sacrificed for a lie?

General Clark: I have the deepest sympathy and empathy with Cindy Sheehan. My son served in the Armed Forces and I worried about him every day. And, I carried a burden of guilt about his service, as I am sure most mothers and fathers do. Because, after all, we either encourage them, supported them, or sustained them in making this commitment to their country. My prayers and condolences are with every family who has lost a loved one in Iraq or Afghanistan, or seen him or her come home forever scarred or crippled. And I thank them for their loved ones' service and for their sacrifice. And I understand the depth of their feelings I believe, because every American trusts our leaders to use our men and women in combat only, only, only as a last resort. And in Iraq, this wasn't the case. And we will probably never learn the full array of motives that lead our nation's leaders to take us to this war. I warned at the time that it was "elective"--we didn't have to do it. There wasn't an eminent threat. So why did we? Cindy Sheehan, every mother and father of our service members, and every American has a right to know. It was a strategic blunder to go there. Now America sees it in hindsight. But those in power have responsibilities to do the right thing, and when they don't they should be held accountable. Cindy is doing everything she can to hold them accountable. President Bush should talk to her and tell her the truth.

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Atlanta, Ga.: General Clark, I am a huge admirer of your career and your intelligent thinking about conflict. However, you just indicated that the president should be willing to put as many civilian and military personnel into Iraq as it takes, and that we shouldn't do it "on the cheap." The conflict in Iraq is already being compared to Vietnam, so without learning from that war's lessons on dumping more and more troops into a situation, what is to prevent it from spiraling even more out of control?

General Clark: As I tried to say in this morning's op-ed, we have got to have a winning strategy. We didn't have one in Vietnam. Neither Johnson nor Nixon were willing to face the implications of Soviet and Chinese support for North Vietnam. And today in Iraq, we don't have a winning strategy for the same reasons: that the Administration won't deal with the regional context of the conflict. Or put in the necessary resources.

Thanks to all of you that asked questions and I am sorry I could not get to all of them. But this dialogue is really important. Our policies are at a turning point in Iraq. And, if we can't construct a strategy for success, then we are going to have to lower our sights even further and that won't be pleasant. Our country needs the understanding of our electorate and the guidance you can give to our elected officials in this time of peril for America.

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