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Iraq: The Way Forward—A Conversation with General Wesley Clark [Rush Transcript; Federal News Service, Inc.]

Speaker: Wesley K. Clark, President and CEO, Wesley K. Clark and Associates, LLC; former Supreme Allied Commander, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (1997-200) and former Director of Strategic Plans and Policy, Joint Chiefs of Staff (1994-96)
Presider: Peter Ackerman, Managing Director, Rockport Capital, Inc.; member, Board of Directors, Council on Foreign Relations
February 10, 2006
Council on Foreign Relations

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Council on Foreign Relations
Washington, DC

 

PETER ACKERMAN: (In progress) -- until May 2000, General Clark was NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe and simultaneously commander in chief, U.S.-European Command. During this momentous period, General Clark commanded Operation Allied Force, which protected a million and a half Albanians from ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. In addition, he was responsible for the peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and for all U.S. military activities in 89 countries of the United States, Middle East and Africa, including 109,000 U.S. service members and 105,000 civilians.

In September 2003, he answered the call from 70,000 Americans to stand as the Democratic candidate for president of the United States, where his campaign earned nationwide acclaim and won the state of Oklahoma and placed second in three other state primaries before he returned to the private sector in February 2004.

As a businessman, he is the head of his own consulting firm, Wesley K. Clark Associates, working with a number of clients in the areas of command and control communications, leadership and technology development. He is also vice chairman of James Lee Witt and Associates, a leading consulting firm in the field of homeland security, business continuity and disaster mitigation. He is a general partner in Four Seasons Ventures and investment fund dedicated to commercializing military technology.

A few housekeeping items here: Please turn off all your cell phones, BlackBerrys, WIFI, anything else that might squeak or beep. And I would like to remind you that this meeting is on the record today.

First, we're glad to have you with us -- and give you a minute to shut off your cell phone. (Laughter.)

I think I'd like to start, if we can, just talking about how you see the situation on the ground in Iraq. And let's start there and we'll move on to other issues.

GENERAL WESLEY CLARK: I promise I'm going to try to answer ever one of these questions in the fewest number of sentences possible.

We should not have gone into Iraq in the first place. It was an unnecessary war. But now that we're there, our presence has changed the equation in the Middle East. And so we have to do the best we can to make the best of a bad, mistaken situation.

We have two choices right now in early February. We have a C-minus solution or we can choose an F solution. The F solution is to pull out forces in accordance with those timelines to appease, I guess, domestic sentiment and to persuade people in the region that we're serious about leaving and, some people say, to provide leverage on Iraqi's that we're serious about leaving. I think that's an F solution, because I think what it does is it mostly restricts us, prevents the people on the ground from using the military forces that are there to gain any political leverage and will result in, as most of these cases do, in a sort of acceleration of the timeline and an inwardly focused operation, which is likely to gain us nothing. After we've left, the forces that are present in the region will cause additional problems for us and then we'll be perched in Kuwait or Jordan or somewhere else wanting to try to influence what's happening and lacking the means do to so. So to me that looks like an F. Looks like an American strategic failure.

Now the other way to do this is to try to keep the forces in there without an announced timeline. Obviously the goal is to reduce those forces and pull out as soon as it's possible to do so. But you don't announce a timeline; instead you use the forces to gain strategic leverage to force the Shi'as to accommodate the Sunnis in the constitution and in the government that's formed and in the security forces and in the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Interior, and to put in place the kinds of internal controls -- things like financial disclosure statements and other means for restricting the degree of outside influence and sectarian influence inside the government. That's a very tall order. It's almost too late to do it, but it's not quite too late because Hakim did agree that there would be a period during which the constitution could be revised. He now says he doesn't want the constitution revised. Well, that's what the subject of discussion is. And that's why the commanders and Zalmay Khalilzad, in my view, need the freedom of action to be able to leverage the enormous U.S. military commitment in Iraq to offset the sectarian domination of the Shi'as.

So that's why I'm going to stop and let you follow up with another question.

ACKERMAN: One question is that since we're in an insurgency -- and people who are serious about insurgencies say that they take at least 10 years to evolve -- is the timeline you're looking at extended -- since we're four years into this now; we have another six years to go. Is that timeline a six-year timeline or is it a shorter one?

CLARK: Certainly I can't predict how long it takes, but I would say this: You know, people always want to draw this Vietnam comparison; so let's draw it, okay?

In Vietnam, we actually had elections and we actually had a government, a couple of governments, and some people didn't like the government back then, but they were actually governments. And they actually had some legitimacy in the country. And we actually had communications with those governments. And there were sects also in Vietnam and there were Buddhists and various other groups that weren't fully represented in the government. But they didn't have the kind of extraordinary influence that the sectarianism in Iraq has had. And even with them, that's where the 10-year figure comes from. So how long could this -- how long could this last? It could last a very long time.

In Lebanon today, there are still problems, 25, 30 years after the initiation of civil war. But that doesn't mean American forces have to be there in great numbers. But it could last a long time.

The commanders on the ground have said, and I certainly would agree with them, that you can't win this war militarily. You can't kill enough people to solve this. So you've got to undercut the recruiting base, you've got to convince the people for their support that they're going to get what they want without fighting. There's nothing inconsistent in most parts of the world between being a member of parliament and having a secret organization off to the side that goes and assassinates people and helps you, so when you speak in parliament, everybody knows you carry a big stick; that's the way it works. And somehow, the United States has to get enough Sunnis in that they will let go of the big stick and feel like they can work this without it. Until that happens, the Shi'as will have their big stick, which is guys in uniform and Ministry of Interior who goes through neighborhoods and rounds people up.

And you know you can call this a civil war. It is in a way, but it could be a lot worse than it is right now. So I don't think we ought to be looking in terms of timeline. I think what we ought to be looking at is right now, there's a window of opportunity; right now, how do we get the maximum leverage to change the political equation on the ground in Baghdad?

ACKERMAN: Let's work in wider circles here. Let's look at the neighbors of Iraq, particularly Iran. I know you have thoughts about that. And let's look at our C-minus solution. And how do you see the way forward with Iran and Syria?

CLARK: Well, I went into the office when I was a one-star. I was the commander of the national training center. And one of the high-ranking Pentagon people came out to see me during the Gulf War and we were training the 48th Brigade at the Georgia Army National Guard and we got along really well. We were about the same age. And he said, "If you ever come back to Washington, stop by my office and say hello." So in May of '91, I stopped by his office to say hello and he and his assistant, a very famous man -- and I'm not going to mention their names right here, but they asked me to come in. And so they told me that the war was over in the Gulf, of course, thanks to the work the NTC did. Of course, the reserves never got there. But that was okay.

He said, "We're in a new situation." He said: "We've got a window of opportunity. It may be five years, it may be ten years, it may be 15 years; we don't know, but we can use U.S. military force with impunity. The Soviets cannot intervene against us. And we can clean up these old Soviet client states in the region who've caused so much trouble in the past." I thought oh, okay. I was a one-star. I'm listening, you know. I'm taking. I'm listening to the guidance coming out a very important person at the Pentagon and his thinking about this. And I filed it away. It was in the age, in the period when we'd gone past the balance of terror and the balance of forces and deterrents. All of us, I think, who were thinking about national strategy were looking for a new strategic, grand strategic concept. This was one of the grand strategic concepts. And it surfaced again when I went through the Pentagon about six weeks after 9/11.

It's a long way of answering your question, Peter. Six weeks after 9/11, I went down to the office of one of the joint staff generals, and he said, sir -- I said you told me a couple -- three weeks ago we're going to invade Iraq. And that didn't make any sense. Are we still invading Iraq? By this time, we were bombing in Afghanistan.

He said, "Oh, it's worse than that," he said. He held up a piece of paper. He said, "This is a memo that says, you know, all the countries on the target list; it's a five-year campaign plan, and it's Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Libya, Sudan and Somalia."

And I said, "Don't show it to me; I just don't want to see it." (Laughter.)

And whether it was a think piece, whether it was a memorandum of a conversation, I'm sure it wasn't a war plan. I mean, war plans are, you know, for five countries, even with a -- you know, in this age, war plans would be, you know, two-feet thick. It was just a piece of paper. But it was written in the Pentagon and it was the old concept. And that concept was all over this town and it was all over the Middle East, and everybody knew that Iraq was the first step.

So as soon as we finished off with Iraq, we have, you know -- we might have a victory parade down Constitution Avenue or not, but we would then move into Syria. It was logical. And then we could go from Syria -- you know, that would open up Lebanon. Then we'd circle back and eventually come back to Iran. These countries in the region knew it. Their ambassadors knew it. It was all over the world that Iraq was the first stop.

So what would they do? What would you do if that was the case? You would have a forward defense; that's what we called it in the United States Army. What we call it today is interfering in Iraq. That's the Iranians and the Syrians. Yes, they're interfering in Iraq. They have been for a long time. They don't want us to succeed there. They'd like to see us stub our toe or worse, because as long as we stay bogged down in Iraq, we're not coming after them; at least that's the thinking.

So they're part of the problem. We're not going to succeed in Iraq unless we make them part of the solution -- not the problem. That's why it's so important that we announce, as we should have months and months ago, that we have no intention of keeping permanent military bases in Iraq. That's why it's so important that we set up a regional dialogue in which we can pull a contact group together just like we did in the Balkans. We may not agree with Syria and Iran, but why can't we talk to them on an official level, even if we don't agree with them?

We didn't agree with -- I mean, after all, we knew that the Russians, the Russian military, they were aiding the Serbs. They were working with Milosevic. We knew it. Now Milosevic always made fun of the Russians to us, but he was happy to take their military advice and assistance and let his generals go to Moscow. We still talked to the Russians. We didn't say you're working against the other side, so we're not talking to you. That was the situation with the big powerful nation.

I think you have to talk to people before you talk about bombing them, to take it to the next extreme. And we need to be able to have a regional dialogue in which we can lay out people's interest and try to find common ground. We may not find that common ground, but we could certainly talk.

So I think that -- you know, the formula for Iraq is to have, as best you can, a non-sectarian government and then have a regional security dialogue in which the neighbor's interest in Iraq are interested and are surfaced, or at least there's a way of trying to get them surfaced, and then they can be dealt with.

ACKERMAN: Okay. Now let's move the circle a little wider. Let's talk about when you were had such a prominent position in Europe and how does that fit into the whole equation?

CLARK: Well --

ACKERMAN: Looking at the Europeans --

CLARK: The Europeans -- first of all, the administration has been on quite a journey, I have to say, and I'm not sure that they can arrive back at the right destination or not. But we left -- when I was the Supreme Allied Commander, we had a quite shattering experience with the Europeans in Kosovo. Even though we succeeded, it was a very painful success and it left bad feelings on both sides of the Atlantic. It left the Europeans feeling like they didn't want to be dominated by the United States again, and it left the Americans feeling like they didn't want to be hobbled by these weak-willed pusillanimous Europeans. You know, instead of capitalizing on the success and being proud of the linkage between military force and diplomacy that forced Milosevic out of Kosovo and stopped the ethnic cleansing, preserved our activities in Bosnia. Instead, the Europeans went about, you know, trying to build an independent European security and defense identity. And as Secretary Rumsfeld said to me shortly after 9/11, we'll never allow anybody to tell us where we can and can't bomb again. So it was sort of a painful recognition that our interests weren't converging, and it was a decision by statesmen and leaders on both sides of the Atlantic that they didn't want to put forth the effort to make those interests converge. It was a fundamental mistake, in my view, on both sides of the Atlantic.

So it was normal, then, that after 9/11 that we told the Europeans -- I remember one guy from the Pentagon explained it to me. He said, no, he said, we don't need NATO involved in Afghanistan or anywhere else. I mean, these countries that are members of NATO, they're begging us to get involved. So if they want to give us forces, we'll take the forces -- (inaudible). But you know, they're coming to our headquarters; we're going to tell them what to do and, you know, we'll coordinate with them; they can put a liaison officer there. But we're not going through all this political stuff with the Atlantic Council and everything.

So that was the thinking. And now the administration, I think, is realizing, albeit a little bit late, that it would sure be nice if they had the consensus engine of NATO to be able to take the United States out of the blame line as a unilateralist on these issues in the Middle East. But it's not clear that we can move ourselves back in a position, or NATO as a whole will accept this responsibility.

Even in Afghanistan, where we're trying to transfer our forces over there, there's been a lot of hemming and hawing about what those forces will do, where they'll be stationed, who will provide those forces, how many there will be, what their technology is, what their rules of engagement are.

And so this is a very tough process, and the way the administration's gone about it has made it much tougher. I don't mean that to sound like a partisan attack; it wasn't. I wasn't partisan when I started out. It's just a difference of strategy and difference of viewpoints in the world.

We desperately need -- the United States -- needs help from our allies in Europe to deal with the Middle East. It's too big a burden for the United States to handle not because we don't have a good military -- we got plenty of military, we have plenty of money -- it's too big diplomatically. We should have other people engaged with us with the same common objectives dealing with countries. It's not a matter of outsourcing our diplomacy; it's a matter of having a unified diplomacy. It's about diplomatic throw weight.

When we're dealing with Iran, we need the diplomatic throw weight of a Western world put together with Russia and China, not three European countries that are operating on a franchise agreement with the United States. The United States needs to be directly involved in those negotiations. And you know, I would have argued that some kind of framework was required, and NATO was, at one point, that kind of framework.

So I think we need our European friends involved. I think we need a framework to do it. And I hope it's not too late.

ACKERMAN: All right. Another part of the puzzle here is we've just had the Quadrennial Defense Review.

CLARK: But, Peter, Peter -- but before you take me there, can I just say one thing?

I think where, you know, my view may differ from a lot of people who are viewed to be critics of the administration is they keep calling for -- put those -- we want more forces in. They think it's about forces. They think it's about, you know, if we could just get 500 more Germans into Iraq it would make a difference or 500 -- any German or 500 Frenchmen on the ground or something. That's not really -- it's not about substituting one battalion of theirs for one battalion of ours. It's not about the manpower. It's about the commitment of the governments and the engagement. It's not about the forces on the ground, in my view.

ACKERMAN: So 50,000 more forces in Iraq wouldn't change the situation materially?

CLARK: It might have at a critical time, but right now, you know, it's moving on. It's not now 50,000 forces that's required. It's the commitments of these other governments to help us seek a C-minus solution.

ACKERMAN: How does our C-minus solution work its way through the Quadrennial Defense Review and our force structure for the next five years?

CLARK: Well, I think -- as I -- of course, I didn't have any participation in writing the QDR and I don't know all the discussions that have gone behind. I'm only reading what has been released of the QDR.

But I've never subscribed to the long war theory, this sort of 40-year war. If the best the United States can do as a national strategy is go against terrorists in the Islamic world, and the way we do it is by invading countries, that's a long war that'll never end and that we'll never succeed in. It's not the right strategic framework for thinking about the United States in the world. It's the wrong strategic framework.

Yes, we have to protect ourselves against terrorism. We know how to do that. It is fundamentally a matter of ideas first and last. It's persuading people that we can get along and we don't have to solve these problems by force. It is secondarily a matter of law enforcement, information sharing and intelligence activities, cooperation between nations to head off the proponents of violence. And third and last, as a last resort only, it may involve military operations.

But one thing I learned in my experience is that if you want to fight, you can usually get a fight. If you're looking for a fight with people you can get one, whether it's in a bar in Manhattan or, you know, Friday night after a high school football game in Little Rock. All you have to do is go up to people and shove them, insult them and punch them, and most people have about the same amount of courage, about the same amount of tolerance, and most people can swing a fist about the same way. And when it's all said and done, you haven't proved too much and you probably haven't changed the situation.

So if we want to move toward a larger war against a group of people who have different religious convictions, that's certainly possible to stimulate and create such a war. I think it would be a tragic mistake. I think the right framework for us, and the framework that goes beyond the QDR, is the framework of how do you help this country move forward in a global economy.

You know, we've taken for granted the base of the QDR and the base of U.S. deterrence, and our whole national strategy in the 20th century was founded on an American superpower economically. We were the largest steel-producing nation in the world in 1900. We were the superpower in 1900. And we had the largest integrated market. We had enormous inflows of foreign capital. We were generating it ourselves. We had incredible untouched resources. And for a century, we were unchallengable economically.

You can see that that's not going, necessarily, to be the case in the 21st century, and it's already having profound impact on the demise of the U.S. manufacturing industry, the loss of economic security for middle-class Americans across much of the United States, the change in employment patterns. And these changes will be even more pronounced, starker and more consequential in the future.

We have to come to terms with this. The rise of China and to a lesser extent India as economic superpowers threatens America's idea and conception of itself. It threatens how we view ourselves, how we express our values. It could change our freedom of action diplomatically. It will certainly drive how we take actions with friends and allies around the world. That's the right framework in which you should address these problems.

So to have a Quadrennial Defense Review that says, okay, we're going to put some special forces here and we're going to be prepared to fight this long war against these terrorists, we're going to kill them everywhere we can find them, we're on the offensive, and then get ready because the next opponent's going to be China -- please, this is not serious strategic thought. This is budget gamesmanship.

It's true the United States should have military capabilities, but it's not the military capabilities that drive the United States' foreign policy. I certainly hope not. And we shouldn't be in the process of naming potential adversaries and shaping their perceptions of their future threats and challenges in order to sustain our armed forces.

We went through this very discussion in the early 1990s, when we had the 2 MRC situation and Colin Powell was then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and presenting these illustrative planning scenarios. And there were seven illustrative planning scenarios in 1991-92. Some of you may have worked on those. I was at Capstone and reading about them at the time.

I got into the Pentagon, and the illustrative planning scenarios were rejected. People wanted real -- give us real scenarios, you know. Give us -- tell us the real force drivers here. So you know, we settled on two. We did a bottom-up review. We settled on Northeast Asia -- Korea -- and we settled on Southwest Asia -- Iraq.

The United States armed forces spent the next 10 years getting ready to fight in Iraq. We wargamed it. We bought equipment for it. We prepared it. When I needed troops in Kosovo and I needed the attention of the military leadership for support in Kosovo, I had my military colleagues in the Pentagon telling me, well, you know, this is going to really impact our ability to go to war in Iraq.

Yeah but, why -- we weren't planning to -- we didn't need to go to war in Iraq in 1998-99, but they were worried about it because that's the strategic framework we -- and now we went to war in Iraq. This is crazy.

So please, let's don't make that mistake with China. (Laughter.) That would be very bad -- (chuckles, laughter) -- and it's totally unnecessary.

I was in China in December, and I was talking to some people who are very closely connected to the Chinese leadership. And they were explaining to me -- they said, you know, China -- they said, for hundreds of years, China has been set upon by its neighbors. They have picked at pieces of China. They have taken pieces from us. And China must set this right, and China is once again a great nation, and we cannot be picked on by neighbors. So we do not mean the United States. We mean our near neighbors.

They said, we have seen that the United States and Britain are good friends, and Britain gave the leadership to the United States. We want to be friends with the United States because you will give the leadership to China. (Scattered laughter.)

Now that's the Chinese mind-set, at least one of them. They're not looking for us to fight a war against them. But there's no doubt that if you were a Chinese general and you were reading the press accounts of Pentagon planning for China and sizing your force to go to China, then you would not be doing your duty if you didn't say, well, gee, against that force, if they were going to go into China, what would I need in China?

And I just don't want to see us get into one of these competitive 19th-century balance-of-power dreadnought competition conflicts. It's not necessary. We've got important work to do to keep the United States and our values and our ideals alive in a world that's changing every day.

And the Quadrennial Defense Review, for all the value of periodically looking at this, has got to be placed in a proper context. It is a servant of the national strategy, not a driver of it. And if the national strategy is so set that it's out looking for adversaries -- after the long war, get ready for the next peer competitor -- then something's wrong with our national strategy.

ACKERMAN: Well, this is a great way to end the first half hour. It's obviously provocative.

We're going to open up to questions now, and if you could wait for a microphone. If you get --

QUESTIONER: A for China --

ACKERMAN: Would you stand up and as you stand up --

QUESTIONER: Edward Luttwak, CSIS. You get an A for China.

CLARK: Well, thank you.

QUESTIONER: You get an A for everything else. You get an F for Iraqi politics -- (laughter) -- because the state of Iraqi political culture today and for about 120 years is that you, today, will be governor and warlord of Oklahoma because that's all you got. That's the state of Iraqi politics.

For you to sit here and say they should be non-sectarian -- that is who they are, okay? I was in the Mosul area, okay? They didn't hear (inaudible). It's the question of the -- (inaudible) -- and the historians and the Turkmen. By the way, the Turkmen are both Shi'a and Sunni, so it's wonderfully non-sectarian. It is simply national.

If you want to deal Iraqi politics, get a good consultant. Saddam Hussein is very in good excellent health and he's unemployed. (Laughter.)

CLARK: Okay, well -- (laughs) -- Edward, you get a very fine mark for your compliments, but you get an F for my interpretation -- (laughter) -- for misinterpreting what I'm saying about Iraq.

I'm not denying that Iraq is sectarian. I would never have gone in there. I would never have said that we can expect a sort of, you know, 1789-type American constitutional democracy to emerge from that. It's absolute -- it's wrong. But the truth is that the U.S. president has exacerbated the sectarian tendencies, which Saddam Hussein suppressed.

The first thing we did when we got there was look for some source of authority and sense of bureaucracy -- (inaudible) -- we'd outlaw the Ba'athist Party and we picked the nearest guys we could find who had authority; it turned out they were clerics.

My friends in the Middle East said, "Are you crazy? You know, we've been working against these people for decades! You've gone in an elevated them!" Said, "Everybody knows what these clerics are like." You know, "We have our faith. We believe in our faith. We're proud to be Islamic. But you know, we have to live in a modern world." And somehow this got off kilter in Iraq.

But I'm not suggesting that you can -- I say C-minus solution for a reason on Iraq. I'm not saying we can end the sectarianism, but I think you can't keep an integral Iraqi state if you don't work to keep the Sunnis involved. And if you let the Sunnis slip away during this window and don't bring their critical mass into the government and into support of a political system, however sectarian it has become, what you'll have is the Sunnis -- the larger Sunni civilization that's on the periphery -- continuing to feed resources -- men, weapons, materiel, technology -- into the conflict and keeping it alive as a way of draining the sectarian influence of Shi'a Islam that's being manifested in Iraq.

And so I call it a C-minus solution. I'm not saying you're going to get rid of the sectarianism in any way. I'm just saying that if you don't keep it contained inside a single political entity, it's going to be expressed in more open conflict for a long time.

QUESTIONER: General Clark, Bill Clark.

As we look at all of this going on, you've got a military that is stretched pretty thin. Forty percent of the forces in Iraq are Guard. Recruitment is down. I saw something in the press saying we are now going to concentrate on Latinos. Okay.

All of this does not bode well for the country as we go forward. I know you said we can go anywhere we want, but if we go without any people, we may not -- it might not work nearly as well.

What do we do about that? This war is really draining the military. If you get 90 percent promotion rate of captains to major, it doesn't mean that they're all good. It means you've got fewer captains that are staying on to be majors.

This is not good. How do you deal with that?

CLARK: Well, when we sat down and looked at it -- and when I was working through some of these issues in summer 2003 I wrote a book called "Winning Modern War," and I had a lot of consultation before that book with people on the inside. So we all knew that sometime between the end of 2006 and the end of 2007 would be the sort of tipping point for the armed forces because it's the third combat tour for these young officers that are married with families that is the real killer. A couple of them -- the first one, people are -- it's a chance to measure themselves. The second one, they don't like it, but they've seen how it was done right the last time; they can do better in their new position. The third one, when there's no end in sight, that's where people are making serious choices.

So provided that we take advantage of the window of opportunity that I'm describing, provided we've got the right leadership on the ground -- and I admit that the track record of U.S. performance at the political level -- I'm not critiquing the military here in Iraq -- but the political level has been very maladroit, at least until last summer -- and if we get the right leadership on the ground and do it the right way, we've got a chance of getting a C-minus solution and getting the troop withdrawals down to a sustainable -- so we've got a sustainable level in Iraq and we can extend that time between the second and third tour for these people in uniform. If we don't do that, then other decisions are going to have to be made.

ACKERMAN: All right, Reuben?

QUESTIONER: Reuben Brigety from George Mason University. General, thank you for coming.

Senator McCain has said that the only thing worse than a military strike on Iran is a nuclear-armed Iran. I wonder if you agree with that statement, and if you could offer your thoughts on viable options to prevent Iran from being nuclear armed.

CLARK: Well, the official policy of the United States for a long time has been that Iran can't have a nuclear weapon. And if you just connect the dots and you say, well, they have an implacable determination to get an nuclear weapon, and you say but under no circumstances can they have one, then there's only one possible outcome -- (chuckles) -- and it's a very unpleasant outcome.

I think that, first of all, we've had a lot of mistakes in dealing with Iran. What the administration's grand strategy actually resulted in was that if you believed in late 2001 that there was a significant proliferation problem -- risk -- and that your three greatest risks for proliferation were Iraq, Iran and North Korea, then the administration put all of its effort into the least significant problem, which has then caused us to defer and be distracted from necessary attention to the two greater problems of North Korea and Iran.

When I testified in front of Congress in 2002 and wrote articles -- I kept talking about Iran being a greater long-term threat because they clearly were embarked on a program then. And in 2001-2002, we were saying five to eight years for their nuclear weapons to come to -- now we -- I don't know what the intelligence says. And they're probably -- if we're honest, there's probably a lot of disputes in the intelligence community, whether it's now another five to eight years or till 2010 or maybe it's only a year. We don't know. But we've lost critical time in dealing with Iran.

I would encourage the United States leadership right now, this week, before March, before it goes to the United Nations Security Council, immediately to talk to the Iranian government. Iran has been a -- it's a great nation. It's 60, 70 million people with a tremendous heritage, and we've got a wonderful Iranian-American community. And the policy that we've pursued toward Iran for the last five to 10 years, no matter what the historical antecedents were or our anger at 1979 and the hostages, still, it's a policy that hasn't served American interests.

We should be doing business -- we should have been a long time ago doing business with the Iranian business community. We should have worked with them. We worked with East Europe when it was under communist domination, and it was one of the key factors that helped East Europe throw off an outmoded set of ideas. We need to be working in the Middle East to help their business communities move past old ideas.

So right now what we need to be doing is talking to Iran -- right now, this week.

QUESTIONER: I'm Brian Katulis. I'm with the Center for American Progress. General, thank you for your comments.

Where -- what are the three main differences between your C-minus solution for Iraq and what the president is proposing in his national strategy for victory in Iraq? Because I hear some slogans like we have a window of opportunity. I hear some things that we've got to include the Sunnis in the political process. And we've got to make a statement that there's no permanent military bases. General Kimmitt said that the U.S. does not seek long-term bases, as did Ambassador Khalilzad last month.

So where -- and maybe that the coffee doesn't have caffeine in it this morning -- but where would you say are your sharpest criticisms of the current stay-the-course path of the Bush administration? Where would you differ? Because it seems to me that the Bush administration is trying to get the Sunnis included in the political process. It seems to me that they're trying to fight a true counterinsurgency. Maybe you could have some criticisms of what they're doing in Al Anbar, but what are the three main differences that you would say you have with the Bush administration's current course?

CLARK: I think they have done pretty well of bringing their stay the course of changing their course to do pretty much what I have recommended all along. (Laughter.)

I've been saying for over two years that there's a political solution. I've been talking about trying to use military power to get a -- to achieve political ends, that there was no military solution.

The president has persisted on a stay-the-course rhetoric, and at the same time he's recently admitted that, of course, the course is always changing. Now if you can square those two statements, then you're an expert in presidential rhetoric.

I'm not trying to square those two statements. I'm not measuring myself against anybody's strategy. I have laid out what I think has been the right thing to do consistently.

Number one, don't go in there.

Number two, if you're there, you've got to try to form a government that is inclusive and you've got to try to de-legitimate the insurgency. And when you do that, you've got to -- and as I told some of the people that are much closer to the policy than I am who have actually got responsibilities -- you've got to harden the border and you've got to be able to go after insurgent strongholds because you cannot let them build a stronghold with impunity, whether it was in Najaf or Fallujah.

Basically, the administration has done everything I've recommended. So I think, you know, the question should be how have they -- how would they disagree with what General Clark's prescribed all along? Why didn't they follow his advice in the beginning and not go in?

And by -- just let me make clear though, you know, I've never said stay the course. I've always said their course was wrong. They're coming my way. If you look at my op-ed in The New York Times on 9 December where I laid out the threat of sectarianism and the challenge of Iran and Iran's growing encroachment on Iraq, you'll see that Ambassador Khalilzad and the administration basically moved to answer those challenges.

QUESTIONER: Nancy Bearg-Dyke.

CLARK: Hi, Nancy.

QUESTIONER: My question is perfect for this moment. But I also wanted to say you talked about dialogue, regional dialogue. And I think dialogue is very important, and we really need to dialogue with the whole Muslim world.

But my question has to do with undercutting the recruiting base. You mentioned that in terms of the insurgency, and I'd be interested in what your tactics are or your plans for that. I think it's really important.

CLARK: Inside Iraq, to undercut the recruiting base, you've got to deal with the real leaders in Iraq, so you've got to work tribal leaders. And to do that you've got to set up an organization that can deal at the political level.

So one of the real challenges that we've had since the -- since we started our latest phase of peacekeeping in the 1990s is that we haven't wanted to make the investment on the civilian side of the peacekeeping equation. We made that investment in Vietnam. And some of you were the analysts, participants, and you know people like Bob Colmer (ph) and his work, and Courds (ph), and civil operations revolutionary development support.

Yes, it was controversial, and yes, they may have done some things that, you know, in the 1970s and '80s people regretted having done, things that may be being done elsewhere today. But the point was that we really did invest a lot of resources in trying to help a civilian governmental structure.

We provided agricultural development assistance. We provided voting assistance. We did all kinds of things, and we put civilians out there working.

We haven't resourced the civilian side of the U.S. effort in Iraq. And you know, I hate to use this hackneyed phrase, but we're running out of time. The window is closing on this. We should have done it early, before the violence got so bad that so many Americans are confined into the Green Zone. It's made it much more difficult.

But with all due respect to my brothers in arms, I think it's very hard for a first lieutenant or a company commander to go out and sit with tribal leaders, men in their 50s and 60s who have been around the block a few times. And this is the third or fourth company commander they've dealt with in two years, as people have come in and out and AORs have changed. And he says, you know, it brings back these cowboy and Indian movies. You know, the great white father in Washington will give you these beads, and we hope that you'll respect our -- I mean, you can't deal effectively in Iraq like that. And we don't have enough of the meritorious civilian leaders to deal with the tribal leaders to bring the political prospectus back in to engage at the right level to be able to undercut the incentives in the local areas and the local conditions which are feeding the insurgency.

And what we tried to do in Bosnia is -- we did have some of those leaders in Bosnia, and places like Brcko and a few other critical spots. And they were -- they were worth their weight in gold. You could not do it with military forces alone.

But that's just been, I think, one of the -- when we go back and unpack everything that has been done in Iraq, I think we're going to find, starting with Jay Garner's problems in getting a force of civilians assembled to go in there, that it was just terribly mismanaged and under-resourced at the outset. And it lit the fire in the insurgency, or at least it enabled it to catch fire, and then we still don't have the right framework.

We have province -- you know, Nancy, we had the district advisers, the province advisers. Sometimes these were military people, but they were tied into the civilian operations revolutionary development support. They were people who were committed to living with the Vietnamese out there. And it made a huge difference. We just haven't done that.

ACKERMAN: Allan? Then we'll go to the back.

QUESTIONER: Allan Wendt.

General, I think no one would dispute your contention that we shouldn't go around seeking adversaries or taking steps that make adversaries where there really aren't any. But it's a very complicated world. The history of the United States indicates that there were many instances where we were ill prepared for military moves of other countries.

How do you square this circle? How does the United States deal with a situation where China makes a move in the Taiwan Strait, for example, without the preparations having gone through the Quadrennial Defense Review?

CLARK: Well, I think that the United States -- I think that it's not so much what the United States does with its preparation for its armed forces. All countries are expected to do this. It's the absence of other, offsetting or superior preparations.

In the 21st century, do we want to live in a balance-of-power world, or do we want to live in a different kind of international structure? That'ss the question Americans have to ask. If you want to live in a balance of power world, you have to ask yourself, okay, now, China, their -- economic predictions say they'll have our GDP sometime, the equivalent, maybe 2030, maybe 2035; depends on whether you believe they grew 16 percent in a year or 9 percent. Nobody knows, and they probably don't know.

But imagine this. The year is 2030, 2035. The United States has 320 million people; Mexico has 140 million people. Mexico and the United States are still at odds over the Southwest border. And the American vigilantes on our side of the border are matched now by irate Mexicans who are tired of all this name-calling and the use of force and the threats and so forth.

And China, of course, at this point, has economic relations with both countries. China says, please, you all settle that quarrel; don't get into this because you're both valued customers of China. Can't you work together in peace? Would it help you if we deploy a couple of Chinese aircraft carriers off the coast of San Diego to illustrate that we really want you to solve this peacefully? (Laughter.) Of course you'd be offended, right? I mean, say, what the heck? That's what we're doing to China. That's the way they see this.

So it starts -- I mean, I don't think there's any objection to the United States doing defense planning and having capabilities-based forces, or even doing wargaming. I wouldn't have any objection to that. I mean, that's what armies and militaries have to do.

The question is, what's the national strategy? Are we simply going to perpetuate a 19th-century balance-of-power system in which, you know, right now, okay, well, let's line up with India against China. Let's work a different level of encirclement. For what end? Can't we work together to create international institutions, rules of the road, rules of conduct in international behavior that have enough support and legitimacy throughout the world that every single nation will find it in their own interest, through their own political systems, to follow these rules of behavior? And can't nations then band together?

We tried this once with the League of Nations. It failed because the United States wasn't part of it. We've tried it again with the United Nations. It's not working very well with the United Nations, in part because of the way the United Nations has constituted itself -- it's badly in need of reform -- and in part because of the fact that we as Americans have been very ambivalent about the leadership role that we inevitably have to take in the United Nations.

Now, if we didn't have a U.N., we'd be struggling now to create something like that. We need a different international structure, because we don't want to find ourselves 50 years from now or 30 years from now trading aircraft carrier deployments with China -- we'll move our two carriers from Taiwan, fine. Then these two Chinese carriers are going to deploy from south of the Hawaiian Islands to, you know, off Cabo San Lucius. Why? What are we doing this for? We shouldn't be in that game so let's try to change that game.

QUESTIONER: Hi, General. Jerry McGinn, Northrop Grumman, formerly in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

I wonder if you could put your general hat back on and talk a little bit how we can move operationally forward in Iraq. Specifically, you mentioned that a political solution is how we're going to get to a solution in Iraq, and I take that point, but you also said that the military situation is going to help you get that political solution.

And as you know from your experience in the Balkans, what got Dayton was the military situation on the ground. Likewise, what got Milosevic out was the military situation on the ground. What do you see, operationally, that we can do in Iraq to help facilitate the diplomatic solution? It seems to me that our presence militarily, in some ways, has become part of the problem. So that's not a call for withdrawal, but maybe for withdrawing from the cities and focusing on other areas.

What operational do you think on the military-sense we can do to improve the situation?

CLARK: Glad you asked! And I'll lay it out in a way I couldn't lay it out if I had any responsibility for the policy -- (laughter) -- or if I were over there. What I'd be doing is scrambling to find military leverage to use against the Shi'as. How would you create such leverage?

Well, number one, is there'd probably be some delays in the shipment of new equipment over to the Iraqi armed forces. You know, we'd love to give them the latest body armor, but it's been held up by Customs clearance in Jacksonville -- Port of Jacksonville -- can you believe it? I mean, can you imagine that? You know, and these two officers that were supposed to be here for training for this unit, you know, that's going to work for the Interior Ministry with the radios, you know, the radios they were supposed to bring? Sorry, I mean, they're unaccountably delayed.

These people are very sophisticated. You're dealing with very sophisticated people and they'll get the message right away. And I'd be deploying some forces along the border with Iran. I know -- I know insurgents -- Syria's the bad country. All the insurgents are coming in through Syria. We don't know what's coming through Iran because we don't have any forces there. So I'd put some forces out there.

And then, you know, I'd say, you know, under your constitutions, the militias must be disarmed. Now, can we begin to plan the disarming of the militias? Oh, no, that's not necessary. First we've got to form a government. Well, we just want to tell you that we've taken the precaution of -- we're setting up eight U.S. brigades -- and I'm just making up this number -- and we're going to equip them to deal with the militias in case you need us to help.

So they're going to be equipped for working in urban areas so we're giving them the latest non-lethal technology, improved armor and they're going to have special crowd control training and other things. And when you start taking these kinds of measures, you begin to get leverage. Muqtada al-Sadr is going over to Syria and talking real tough to Bashar Assad. Yeah, we're going to form up. We're going to make an -- get these Americans out of here. We'll join forces against the common enemy, America.

That's what apparently he said, I mean, that's what he's quoted as having said. Sure. And he's got 100,000 -- 500,000 or maybe -- who knows -- the army of God that he can surge into the streets of Baghdad. Maybe a million people. So what we've got to do is gain leverage against that.

From the beginning of the U.S. occupation or the U.S. mission, I should say, there's been a clear understanding that if the Shi'as ever turned against us we didn't have enough forces there and the presence in Baghdad to deal with Muqtada al-Sadr. If they put 500,000 people on the streets of Baghdad and sat down on the streets, stopped all commerce, stopped all movement -- and I'm hearing today rumors that they've told us -- the Shi'as have told us, if you don't stop talking to these Sunni insurgent leaders, we're going to drive you out.

Well, that's a bluff that I'd be willing to take because right now what we've done is we've finished Iran's revenge from the 1980s war against the Ba'athist generals. We've broken Iran's adversary. We've handed the leadership of major parts of this country over to the Shi'as, many of whom took refuge during the war in Iran.

So before this window closes, we need to get a little leverage. I'm not sure you have to do all the things I've suggested. They're probably too extreme and if you went to the people on the inside, they'd shudder and say, oh my God, no, no, you can't do this. But you know, I've been there. I know what we did against the Bosnian Serbs and how we got leverage. I had to order people to give up -- order the Serbs to give up weapons, to take pistols away, to confiscate things. You know, and people told me, oh you can't do that, sir. You can't give that order.

We gave that order and they did it. And this is the time where you've got to take military power and use it to gain political leverage, because six months from now, a year from now, it may be too late.

QUESTIONER: Toby Gati, Akin Gump.

Wes, there's no chance of changing the policies until the belief of the administration that we live in a 20th-century world or that we have to fight by balance of power is changed and there's no chance of changing the size of the military budget versus the rest of the effort unless the American public is willing to hear arguments about national security that have some of what you are saying in it.

You ran for president -- any indication that the public will accept C-minus when one party is offering victory and A-plus? And this is especially the case that the Congress won't exercise oversight. So how do we have a dialogue with our own public that says that the C-minus is real and the A-plus isn't worth the paper it's printed on?

CLARK: Well, I have to be careful because you're asking me a question that might slip into partisanship, you know.

ACKERMAN: Well, this might be the last question, so if it's --

CLARK: Well, I don't want to be partisan on this issue because, you know, right now I'm kind of going across America and I'm kind of on the warpath saying, country before party. And we can't afford partisanship in America the way that it's emerging. We can't have just an exchange of angry voices and challenges to people's loyalty and patriotism as a substitute for dialogue. We've got to get our policy right.

So I think that in terms of having that dialogue, I think political parties have a really important role to play here, because other than groups like this and the council in New York and in, you know, foreign policy groups across America -- the elite so to speak who are following the news every day and for what? The average Americans, they're not into this the same way. They're looking at the headlines, the casualty lists. And they're waiting for this dialogue to be shaped through the political system.

And I think that if you look at America today, there's probably not been another time in our history when Americans are more dependent on what happens beyond our borders than we are today. So if you look at it -- not only in the war on terror and the war in Iraq, possible threat of a nuclear armed Iran -- but if you look at the price of energy or gasoline at the pump, if you look at the challenge of dealing with global warming -- and I think the evidence is pretty clear out there that there is such a phenomenon occurring -- if you look at the migration of U.S. manufacturing jobs abroad and the question about the future of the U.S. economy and how we're going to continue to be a producer nation and what we're going to produce -- all these things are caught up in how we relate to the international system.

So the stuff of politics can no longer be, which party has the best philosophical approach to schools, jobs, health care? It's no longer just about domestic issues. We're going to have to have both parties able to communicate and convey important thoughts about how the United States operates in the international system, because that's what impacts on our voters.

So it's incumbent on both parties to move beyond the rhetoric and the slogans and the sloganeering and bring this to the public. I mean, that's the mechanism in which democracy works. I think there's adequate ideas out there. I think they can be put together. I don't think it's simply a matter of saying, well, how do you, you know, how do you disagree with President Bush's, stay the course? I think you've got to go a little bit more beyond that, because I said, the course has been changing.

The course they're moving to is my course, which I've been recommending all along and so have a lot of other people, by the way. But I think that we've got to broaden the dialogue in the American political system. And I hope that the 2006 elections will be an opportunity for that and I hope that Republicans and Democrats and independents everybody else who's running for office and cares about this country will be prepared to tackle the tough issues not only about what they're going do to improve the quality of American education or fix a failed health care system or make a better business environment for small businesses or deal with crumbing infrastructure in America, but how they're also going to help America relate to the outside world, because that's part and parcel of dealing with education and health care and business environment and infrastructure.

And so we've got to get beyond sloganeering. We've got to get our candidates ready to talk and we've got to have some support from the informed media and press and keep these issues out in front of the public. We're at a time where fundamental choices have to be made in America. This is the time. This election -- not 2004 -- this election in 2006 is the time for fundamental choices to make as to which way this country's going. Are we going to continue down to seek a revival of a 19th-century balance-of-power system in which we're dealing with the old notion of the might of nations or are we going to try to move beyond that?

Are we going to face up to the reality that the United States is engaged in a global economy in which old ideas don't have the same currency or are we going to use the same old sloganeering and wait until the ship really does crash into the dock? So fundamental choices need to be made and that's what the stuff of politics is about and I'm not here to speak about partisan politics. I'm just here to try to say, I hope our country can deal with this agenda. There are no guarantees going forward. We've only succeeded in America because people -- courageous Americans -- have seen it, have led it, have committed their lives to it, have taken the country forward.

You know, we think about as God gave us this great land and it was our destiny. But I think God asked Americans to take the lead and when those people signed the Declaration of Independence, they signed it without knowing what their future was. There was no guarantees and when Madison and Hamilton wrote the Federalist Papers, there were no guarantees. And when Jefferson brought in the Louisiana Purchase, there were no guarantees. This country's been in times of strategic decisions again and again in its history and this is one of them.

ACKERMAN: Wes, that was terrific. Our hour's past. Thank you all for coming. Just a great job. (Applause.)

 

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