Roger L. Simon posts an op-ed Wesley Clark wrote on April 10th of last year, and claims that it proves that Clark supported the war. Had I read the op-ed quickly without knowing anything about Clark, I might very well have concluded that he was expressing qualified support for the war. However even a passably careful reading of the thing reveals that it fails to provide significant evidence that Clark supported the war. Everything Clark writes is consistent with opposition to the war–though perhaps combined with recognition that the world is better without Saddam and a desire to to portray the whole enterprise in a good light. All of these things are, of course, consistent with thinking that the self-defense case for war was a crock and that the decision to go to war was a sub-optimal one.
The most important passage for those who would portray the essay as strong (or even conclusive) evidence that Clark was for the war are as follows:
“Can anything be more moving than the joyous throngs swarming the streets of Baghdad? Memories of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the defeat of Milosevic in Belgrade flood back. Statues and images of Saddam are smashed and defiled. Liberation is at hand. Liberation ? the powerful balm that justifies painful sacrifice, erases lingering doubt and reinforces bold actions. Already the scent of victory is in the air. Yet a bit more work and some careful reckoning need to be done before we take our triumph.”
Needless to say we have to resist the urge to strain for a non-pro-war message here. Intellectual integrity is in short enough supply these days. Our question is not can we force a non-pro-war reading on this essay? but rather is there a sensible non-pro-war reading of it?
Well, I was against the war (torn, but just barely more against it than for it by H-hour), but I could have written this op-ed (er, were I smarter…and if I knew more…and if I were a better writer…and…oh, you get the picture…). I was happy to see the tyrant deposed, the statue come down, etc. And who could NOT think of liberations past? The only part of this passage I probably would not have written is this part:
“Liberation–the powerful balm that…erases lingering doubt and reinforces bold actions.”
(Note: these are not drudgelipses–they indicate that I have elided words rather than pages.)
This proposition is almost certainly true–liberation (like success in general) erases lingering doubt and reinforces bold actions–but I wouldn’t have written that because it could easily be interpreted to mean that the war was a smart idea, or that this success should embolden us to undertake more actions of this kind in the future. But that’s not what the sentence means. On the face of it, it’s not a claim about what our reactions ought to be, but, rather, a claim about what kind of reactions we tend to have to such events–it, for example, makes us forget our doubts, it doesn’t make them unreasonable (so it doesn’t make forgetting them reasonable). If we are being urged to do anything here, it is to resist indulging too much in these reactions, to sober up a bit and contemplate the task ahead. In fact, the following seems to me to be a perfectly sensible gloss on what Clark wrote:
The scenes from Baghdad inspire us. They make us think of the fall of the Wall and the defeat of Milosovic. It’s good to see those statues of that SOB smacked with shoes. Liberation is at hand. In general, liberation makes sacrifice worthwhile, makes you forget whatever doubts you had about the undertaking, and emboldens you to try other hard and risky endeavors. But, um, let’s not get too excited yet–there’s there’s more work and more thinking to do.
I want to make it clear–on a first read, that’s not how I interpreted it (I didn’t know how to interpret it)–but we usually don’t interpret things correctly on a first read if they are even moderately subtle or complex. And my guess is that what Clark is trying to do here is rather subtle and difficult–he’s trying to counsel caution at a time when celebration seems to be in order, and he’s trying to do it without sounding like a nattering naybob of negativism.
The rest of the op-ed is consistent with this interpretation. It praises the soldiers who carried out the battle plan, points out the good things about the planning and execution of the war, and notes the rough spots too. It’s a sober and balanced assessment of the war, in my opinion. Clark notes problems without carping and dispenses praise when appropriate and without fawning. But there is nothing in it that shows or even strongly suggests that Clark thought that the war was a good idea. (Though there are some passages that can kinda sorta be read that way with a little effort.)
At the end of the essay, Clark does write:
“As for the political leaders themselves, President Bush and Tony Blair should be proud of their resolve in the face of so much doubt.”
Again, this might rather naturally be taken to indicate approval of the war, but it probably shouldn’t be. Resolve in the face of doubt, if it is a virtue at all, is a virtue even when one has undertaken an enterprise in error. (I myself am not sure that it is a virtue at all, but that’s probably just one difference between a pointy-headed geek such as myself and a four-star general…) Again, Clark is apparently simply giving credit where credit is due. But saying “you stuck to that project with admirable resolve” obviously does not mean the same thing as “boy, you sure were smart to undertake that project.”
And note that Clark continues:
“And especially Mr Blair, who skillfully managed tough internal politics, an incredibly powerful and sometimes almost irrationally resolute ally, and concerns within Europe.”
So even (approximately) the resolve Clark has just praised he now characterizes as “almost irrational.” So if these two components taken together constitute a compliment, it is (re: Blair at least) a highly attenuated one at best. Hardly unalloyed approval.
And I think that the end of the essay provides reasonably strong confirmation of my reading:
“Their opponents, those who questioned the necessity or wisdom of the operation, are temporarily silent, but probably unconvinced. And more tough questions remain to be answered.
Is this victory? Certainly the soldiers and generals can claim success. And surely, for the Iraqis there is a new-found sense of freedom. But remember, this was all about weapons of mass destruction. They haven?t yet been found. It was to continue the struggle against terror, bring democracy to Iraq, and create change, positive change, in the Middle East. And none of that is begun, much less completed.”
Well, you probably know the kinds of things I’m going to whine about at this point. But I haven’t slept in quite some time (note the crappy writing…sorry!), so I’ll keep the whines short. Go back and read David Brooks’s comments on The Great Unhinging (or better, of course, my own comments on those comments!). What we have here is probably a case of Mr. Simon seeing what he wanted to see and/or what he expected to see, plus perhaps the effects of political polarization and the pervasive influence of the gotcha atmosphere. And maybe something else I’ve been meaning to note as well: everything happens so fast in the blogosphere…speed is of the essence…nobody thinks very much about what they write. It’s getting to be like academic philosophy–people get famous by saying outrageous things that they haven’t really thought through very carefully, and then lots of other people waste their time going through the initial poorly-thought-out position explaining why it’s wrong. Note that I don’t mean to insult Mr. Simon here, he’s just doing what what’s done around these parts. But we should all do less of it. Of course I may be the one who’s wrong here, but you can be the judge of that.