Here’s a good rule of thumb: never read a book by a politician running for office. Whether it is George W. Bush’s folksy evangelism in A Charge to Keep or the then Opposition Leader Tony Blair’s toe-curdlingly awful New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country, they are all the same. Safe, saccharine, ghost-written by some aide, full of ‘let me tell you about the wonderful lady I met helping inner city kids’, they are little more than political manifestos with a dust jacket.
However, every rule has its exception. General Wesley Clark’s Winning Modern Wars is just such an exception. Perhaps that is because Clark says he wrote the book this summer, before he finally decided last month to run for the presidency. Thankfully, it shows. Challenging, concise, intelligent and in many ways courageous, this book is certainly worth reading by anyone interested in where American foreign policy next goes after Iraq. I just don’t happen to agree with it.
Clark’s argument is simple. The Iraq war was a brilliant military achievement that demonstrated the awesome superiority of the US armed forces, but it has been what he calls ‘a policy blunder of significant proportions’. By going after Saddam Hussein, he argues, the US squandered the global sympathy and goodwill felt towards Americans after 9/11, diverted resources and attention from the real fight against Al Qaeda, and undermined the international institutions like the UN and Nato — an organisation which, as its former Supreme Commander, Clark unsurprisingly feels a particular affection for.
So why did the Bush administration do it? Clark believes that in the aftermath of 9/11 two currents have come together. The first is an outdated Cold War logic that behind every terrorist is a state sponsoring them. The second is a neo-conservative agenda to build a New American Empire. In the most revelatory paragraph of the book, he reports a conversation he had in the Pentagon in November 2001 in which a ‘senior military staff officer’ told him of a five-year plan to deal with seven countries — Iraq first, then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia and Sudan. The plan is apparently known in administration circles rather chillingly as ‘draining the swamp’.
The problem, Clark says, with building a New American Empire is that the US army is not an army of empire. It may be unbeatable at war-fighting but it has no appetite for peacekeeping, as the planning for postwar Iraq demonstrates. Unlike classic colonial powers from the Romans to the British, America’s instinct is always to bring the boys home as quickly as possible.
Clark advocates a different approach, what he calls a ‘more powerful, less arrogant America’. It should maintain its massive superiority in ‘hard power’ (i.e. military might) while at the same time exploiting its ‘soft power’. ‘Soft power’ means the power that comes from the influence of American values, culture, diplomacy and economic prowess, and can be exercised through the international institutions like the UN, Nato and WTO which America helped set up after the second world war.
Clark’s argument about how America should do more to exploit its ‘soft power’ I find persuasive, if not wholly original. It was first expressed last year by the Harvard academic Joseph Nye. However, as someone who voted for the war against Iraq in the House of Commons and who does not regret his vote in any way, I am not convinced by what he says about Iraq.
Put to one side for the moment the debate about weapons of mass destruction, which I still believe were a legitimate cause for war. Instead, see the Iraq war as a necessary demonstration of Western resolve. For, with the hindsight forced upon us all by 9/11, it was clear that the West had been woeful in its response to the escalating menace of international terrorism throughout the 1990s. We had also been feeble in our efforts to get Saddam to comply with the will of the UN. Together they created the impression that the West was weak, and that we were not prepared to defend our values or protect our citizens. The campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have been potent demonstrations that we will stand up to, and defeat if necessary, those intent on causing us harm, and that we can improve people’s lives by doing so. That is why it is so important in both countries to show we can also win the peace — which, contrary to the relentlessly negative impression given by the anti-war lobby and their fellow travellers in the media, we are now actually doing.
Whether or not Clark convinces me, of course, does not matter. What does matter is whether he convinces the Democratic party. A late starter in the race who only decided he was a Democrat last month, Clark nevertheless holds many strong cards. He is a four-star general who cannot easily be portrayed as weak on national security. He is a southern centrist in a Democrat field overcrowded with northern liberals. In the words of an experienced Republican friend of mine, ‘He has no political philosophy but he does have a belief, and the belief is: this is Wes’s moment.’ But there’s one hitch in the plan. Clark needs to win over core Democrats who are currently enthused by the anti-war rhetoric of the Governor of Vermont, Howard Dean. Winning Modern Wars may not have been conceived as a political manifesto, and it mercifully rarely reads as one, but it will certainly be used as one.