Gen. Wesley K. Clark (Ret.) spoke about post-Cold War American policy on May 24 to a full crowd in the Hewlett Teaching Center.
“Stanford is so wonderful, the students are so eager to participate and are so forthcoming,” he began. “I’m going to give you some ammunition tonight. I want you to be forthcoming, I want you to participate.”
Clark was the final public figure the ASSU Speakers Bureau brought to campus this year. Stanford in Government co-sponsored the event.
Iraq was the nominal subject of the speech. Gen. Clark, the former J-5—Director for Strategic Plans and Policy—on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, began by recounting the history of American strategy since the Cold War in order to contextualize the war in Iraq.
“When we won the cold war, what happened to the United States was we lost our adversary and we lost our strategy, our purpose, our reason for organizing our society and living in a certain way. All the mechanics were still there, but there was no purpose in it. We lost our purpose in the world.”
Clark, a Rhodes Scholar and West Point graduate, led NATO as the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, and has written extensively on modern war. After retiring in 2000, President Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In the 1990s, Clark said, “We understood that there were risks out there but we didn’t understand how to approach them. It takes years before a nation can develop a strategy.”
He had few kind words to describe the foreign policy of George W. Bush’s presidency. “We had no national strategy. And after 2001 we had an administration which obviously bore a heavy sense of responsibility for failure.” As for Afghanistan and Iraq: “We didn’t plan for success. You never run a military operation without planning the whole thing through to the end, if you can. We could have, but we didn’t.”
As a result of Iraq, Clark said, “There’s been tremendous damage done to the United States.”
The former general spent much of the rest of his talk arguing for how the United States might rebuild its legitimacy.
“We alone among the great powers of the 19th and 20th centuries derived our consent from the governed,” he observed. “We universalized our political values through the United Nations. We try to do the right thing.”
Arguing that we’ve lost our moral way in Iraq, General Clark nevertheless remained optimistic that America could retake its place as a different kind of nation, one not motivated entirely by national interest.
Clark, perhaps drawing on his experience with international organizations such as NATO, also said, “We’ve got to develop international institutions to focus on problems beyond any one nation’s ability to solve. Problems like climate change, the spread of nuclear weapons. To support the right to protect. The United States can only do all this with allies, and it will only have allies if it regains its legitimacy.”
He also spent some time arguing for reforms in American domestic policy. Focusing on global economic competition, he said, “We’ve got to fix our education, our business relations, our labor markets. We’ve got to reduce our dependence on energy drawn from volatile regions.”
During the questioning period that followed, Gen. Clark responded to a major in the U.S. Armed Forces who asked if Gen. Petraeus’s counterinsurgency plan for Iraq had any hope.
“I like what I’ve seen of Petraeus’s counterinsurgency plan. It looks like he’s going to put more emphasis on achieving a political resolution in Iraq.
“Each successive month makes it harder and harder. As people die, they harden their hearts. They experience it. Blood is hard to wash away. It’s hard for people who have had family members killed come to the table to compromise.
“I don’t care if you put 500,000 troops in Baghdad. Our troops are not Iraqis. And you cannot deal with political issues with military forces.
“What the president has done is tried to bridge it so it will go through the end of his administration. The question is, has he made it totally unresolvable. I think so.
“I buy Petraeus’s political and diplomatic planks. I just don’t think we need all those troops there. Now is the time to begin that dialogue between the regional powers and prepare to withdraw.”
The former general also answered a question on Al Qaeda and terrorism generally. Clark assured the audience, “We’re going to solve the national security question. It’s not something we can’t deal with. And it’s not the threat we had from the Soviet Union.”
As for the future of the American military, Clark predicted, “We’re going to have a debate about the draft. We’re not going to be able to keep the strength of the armed forces up without raising this question.”
At a reception that followed the event, Tyler Kirtley ‘07, Chair of Stanford in Government, said, “The event had a good turnout, and the people who came were certainly passionate. Though his background is in the military, General Clark approached the issues in a way that showed Stanford students how they can impact policies across the board if they choose to engage in public affairs. I thought he gave a great, insightful talk that exceeded our already high expectations for the event.”
“General Clark is a phenomenal speaker,” said Sagar Doshi ’09. “He has a tremendous comprehension of the issues. There’s a tendency on these topics to give answers in terms of general ideals and he had the ability to hit them on a concrete level. I hadn’t heard about General Clark before, but now I’m really glad I came.”
Professor David Kennedy of the Department of History, who also attended the event, said, “The single most striking thing to me is the candor with which General Clark discussed how Al Qaeda is not an existential threat to the United States of America, as the Soviet Union was. He is the only public figure I have heard to even tiptoe in this direction in public.”
Professor Kennedy added, “There are so many public officials who know this but can’t say it because it’s so dangerous to challenge the existing orthodoxy. I really admired that and I hope he says more about that in every venue he can.”
The Review also had the opportunity to sit down in an exclusive interview with General Clark.
The Stanford Review: “What was it like bridging the divide between military and political service?”
General Wesley Clark: “It’s not as great a divide as people first suspect. In high military positions, you have to earn the respect of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and families that you lead. The difference is the mechanics of electioneering.
“There is surprisingly little difference between the ideals. People have the idea that the military wants to use force. Nobody wants to use force less than the people in uniform. They know what it means. It’s always unpleasant. Things don’t always work out, and usually unintended consequences follow.
“Most of military leadership is not about war, but about building institutions to perform.”
SR: “What should the United States do to rebuild its credibility abroad?”
GWC: “There are three sets of actions. First, we have to change some of the actions that are underway. Second, we have to change some of our policies at home. And third, we have to hold people accountable for misdeeds of the past.
For the first, we need to treat people with respect if we expect to be treated with respect. And we should talk to people even if we don’t agree with them. Beyond that, we’ve got to find a way out of Iraq. We’re in the middle of a civil war. We’re losing legitimacy there. We violated in Iraq almost every principle of just war doctrine.
At home, we have to divest our ourselves of Guantánamo, and hand it over to NATO. No torture or ‘rough measures’ of interrogation. It’s un-American, it’s counterproductive, and it’s morally reprehensible.
And finally, we need a real investigation into how the authority of the United States could be so badly abused.”
SR: “Are you endorsing anyone for the ’08 race, or are you planning on running again?”
GWC: “I haven’t said I won’t run. I’m still hoping to find a way.”
SR: “What advice do you have for Stanford students thinking about public service?”
GWC: “I think if you go to Stanford you have some unique opportunities. In some fields in life you can’t make a difference as a young person. In the political realm people listen to what a young person says. It’s one person, one vote, whether you’re a Nobel prize-winning scientist or a student. The fact that you’re highly thought of enough to get admitted to Stanford already gives you some credibility, so I hope you’ll take the time to understand the issues and speak out.”