The Corner

The Mind of a General

And while I’m talking about old interviews on Uncommon Knowledge—this is a weekend, after all, so K-Lo permits us to be a little more, shall we say, discursive—here’s another, this one from a show I taped with Wesley Clark just a few months before 9/11. Our topic was Clark’s book about the conflict in Kosovo, Waging Modern War.

A couple of points emerged that remain relevant today.

The first? Clark had a real problem with his colleagues and superiors back at the Pentagon—just take a look at the way he describes the incident concerning Apache helicopters. What was going on? A simple clash of personalities? Or something deeper? Clark never answered this question. He still hasn’t.

The second point: Clark throve on his dealings with our NATO allies, and after reading this interview you can see why he keeps arguing on the campaign trail today that, by contrast with Bush, he knows how to get along with the Europeans. Yet whereas in Kosovo we were helping the Europeans solve their own problem—neither the French nor the Germans wanted tens of thousands of Albanian Muslims fleeing north—in Iraq we’re dealing with a threat that the Europeans believe is aimed principally at us. The Europeans proved cooperative in Kosovo, in other words, because it was their bacon that we were pulling out of the fire. How Clark can remain blind to this I cannot imagine. But blind he remains.

Below, an excerpt from the interview, which was taped in June 2001. (For the entire interview, click here.)

Robinson: There are passages in your book in which you just seethe, just seethe, and the people you’re angry at are your own colleagues back in Washington—the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense. And you argue that they repeatedly obstructed your efforts to prosecute this war….Give us one example, the trouble you had getting the Apache helicopters. Describe that incident.

General Clark: Well actually the Apaches were suggested to me by the Chairman of the Joint Chief’s of Staff, Hugh Shelton.

Robinson: All right.

General Clark: And he said, could you use them? I said, well, yes, I’ll take a look at them. It’s a basic rule, when you’re a commander, and you have a military problem and somebody offers you resources, you try to use those resources. And it’s your job as a commander to use them correctly, not to have them destroyed, not to put them in excessive risk, not to misuse them, but, you know, if they’re going to offer you the resources, you’re going to try to use them. So we took a look at it, I said yes I’d like to use them. He said well just send me in a concept paper. I sent in a concept paper, it was, I think the day before we started the campaign, or two days before we started the campaign. Didn’t hear anything for a couple days. I thought I’d get a call back the next day saying okay, got it, you know, you’re ready to go. Nothing happened. I–three or four days I called, I said look, you know, what’s happening. The Staff said, we don’t understand your concept. I said, what don’t you understand about the concept, I mean, they take off from friendly territory, they fly over enemy lines, and they use their long range missiles at night against enemy forces in the rear, I mean, that’s the doctrine of the Apache. And they’ve got all the support they need, the Command and Control, I mean, what’s not to understand. They said, well, we need more details. So this delayed it–we put in a much more detailed package. This is basic doctrine…

Robinson: And this was after the campaign had already begun?

General Clark: This is after the campaign has begun. This is we’re actually in…

Robinson: In battle.

General Clark: …and–and–and their–so finally about seven days into the campaign, I still haven’t gotten an answer on this and it just so happens that the Secretary of Defense calls and I talk to the Secretary and as we finish the main reason why he called, I say, Mr. Secretary I need your help on these Apaches. And it’s been back there–we’re seven days, eight days into the war and I still don’t have an answer on them. And he says I don’t know anything about it. I said but your staff has it, they’re sitting on it back there. So he says, I’ll check on that. So two nights later I have a video teleconference. The Army comes up with twenty-four reasons why the Apache shouldn’t be used in Kosovo. And they range everything from, gee, you know, they’re painted green and they might give people the impression that we’re going into a ground war to there’s no targets, how could they get over the mountains, the pilots might not be ready to go. I mean, they–they range from soup to nuts. And we eventually did get the Apaches deployed, but not without a lot of delay. And as a result of the video teleconference, the Army pressures caused the task force to grow from about eighteen hundred people to about five thousand five hundred people. As various people suggested to the Army, well aren’t you worried about this and don’t you need back-up on this, and do you have enough of this–and so what could have been a ten day deployment turned into a thirty day deployment.

Robinson: You write throughout the campaign the Pentagon was distracted by its preference for focusing on North East Asia and the Persian Gulf, part of the National Military Strategy. Let me try putting this construction on it. It occurred to me as I read your book that they treated you as the odd man out because you were the odd man out. All of you had sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. Back at the Pentagon, they insisted on focusing on what could become genuine threats to this republic, and there’s Clark over there, running an operation that involves chiefly European interests, he’s got to get his plans approved by everybody–I mean he’s passing stuff to the people from Luxemburg for goodness sake, they’ve got to clear on stuff before he acts, this is just not a direct threat–it’s a side show. In their minds at some level, they’re a sideshow. And what I’m suggesting is that in some sense, they were right.

General Clark: Well they were correct in–in a way, in the sense that the U.S. military command structure is really not set up to work with our Allies. And this is continuing to come out today as you continue to hear these sort of leaks of unilateralism coming out of the United States. And there’s no doubt about it, people in the Armed Forces believe that we’ve got the best Armed Forces in the world. We do. Nobody else can hold a candle to us. And so if we bring our allies in, their equipment’s inferior, they’re probably not as well trained, and, you know, it’s a–it’s nice to be proud of your own organization, but the simple fact is that for reasons of national strategy and diplomacy and influence in the world and shaping the world the way we want it to be shaped, we have to operate with allies. And the Pentagon command structure was set up fundamentally to operate unilaterally. So there wasn’t any way to feed in Allied concerns to the Committee of the Joint Chief’s of Staff who sat in judgment on these requests. A lot of discussion during the war about war by committee, and people say, oh, this is bad, you know, there should be a commander in charge, not a war by–and they blamed NATO, but the committee wasn’t NATO. The constraints imposed by the Committee of the Joint Chief’s of Staff were more worrisome to the conduct of the war then the constraints imposed by having to coordinate with other countries…

Robinson: Second-guessing the…Pentagon?

General Clark: Exactly.

Robinson: So what’s the lesson?

General Clark: Well the lesson is, I think that we’ve got to have a new way of looking at the world….This is a time when we should be supporting our allies, helping our friends working to reinforce those that share our values. It should be an opportunity-based strategy rather then a threat- based strategy and we need the chain of command in the armed forces and inside the Pentagon to be able to focus on those opportunities, not just react to threats.