Last week, retired General Wesley Clark disqualified himself for the job he now seeks, and for which he incessantly claims he is the most prepared of any Democratic presidential candidate: commander-in-chief.
In a meeting last Thursday with the editorial board of New Hampshire’s Concord Monitor, the would-be president made statements that no one staking a serious claim on the office, let alone anyone who claimed to be an expert about national security, could make. Referring to the murderous 9/11 attacks, he declared: “If I’m president of the United States, I’m going to take care of the American people. We are not going to have one of these incidents.”
According to the Monitor, Clark, when asked to clarify his position in a follow-up interview that night, reaffirmed his belief that taking appropriate measures would keep America safe. “I think [9/11] could have been prevented…I think it can be prevented again if we have the right leadership. That’s me. I will protect America.”
Now, one can contend that there was more the U.S. government could have done to prevent the sorts of terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001. One can even promise to do a better job than the incumbent when it comes to protecting the American people.
But anyone who pledges that, if elected, he will ensure the American people are never exposed to future terrorist incidents–including ones vastly more destructive than those that befell us 27 months ago–is sufficiently delusional or dishonest, or both, to be disqualified for the Oval Office.
No one who held the sorts of senior positions in the U.S. military that General Clark did could be ignorant of an unpleasant truth: Even if America were a far less free and open society than it is today, we would still be vulnerable to murderous attacks by determined people willing to kill themselves in order to do us harm.
This reality renders dangerously misleading Clark’s assertion that “nothing is going to hurt this country–not bioweapons, not a nuclear weapon, not a terrorist strike–there is nothing that can hurt us if we stay united and move together and have a vision for moving to the future the right way.”
“Stay[ing] united,” “moving together,” and “hav[ing] a vision for moving to the future” are all desirable. To the extent that a leader can deliver on such goals, the country would presumably be better off. Even if he does, though, we will absolutely, positively not be invulnerable to bioweapons, nuclear weapons, or a terrorist strike.
To be sure, Wesley Clark would not be the first politician either to misspeak or to promise more than he knows he can deliver. And, in the wake of criticism from some of his rivals on Friday, the general backpedaled somewhat, noting that “nobody can guarantee anything in life, but it’s clear that we can do much more to prevent an attack on the American homeland. When I am president of the United States, I will do more.”
Yet Clark has crossed a line, going beyond mere pandering to a public legitimately made anxious by worrisome news about heightened threat conditions, intensified security procedures to protect New Year’s crowds and Bowl games, planes being diverted and put under military escort, a Saudi student in Idaho who allegedly used the internet to recruit and incite terrorists for jihad against this country, etc. He offered the American people something worse than a guarantee that he knows, if elected, he could not honor: He lied to them, and in such a way as to make the danger greater.
The threat of future attacks on the American people, infrastructure, and homeland involving weapons of mass destruction broadly defined is something the public must understand is real and probably growing. Consequently, they must be encouraged and enabled to participate in efforts to provide as much protection as possible for themselves, their families, their homes, and their communities–something the Bush administration can fairly be criticized for not doing enough to foster.
This means more than just spending money and identifying ways in which individuals and community groups–as well as government agencies–can help make attacks more difficult to conduct. This may entail not only preserving but expanding the Patriot Act–something virtually all the Democratic candidates appear to oppose. It also means giving priority to measures we can take to plan and prepare for such attacks, in the event they occur nonetheless.
Even if, however, all this is done comprehensively–and strong presidential leadership will surely be required to get it done even to a lesser degree–we will still be vulnerable. But it is a safe bet that far less will be done, and our vulnerability will be that much greater, if Americans are encouraged to believe what is simply untrue: Namely, that the election of one man will assure they are never again subjected to a 9/11.
–Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is the president of the Center for Security Policy and an NRO contributing editor.