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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Wes Clark

(Please welcome General Wesley Clark, A Time to Lead: For Duty, Honor and Country author of in the comments — jh)

And they did. They really did. They stood up, men from South Texas and the Bronx and Kansas and California, in a firefight in a jungle in Southeast Asia. Men who had been plucked out of their lives, threatened with jail if they refused, some who held master’s degrees, others who hadn’t finished the tenth grade, they were firing from the hip and the shoulder, a dozen men, moving into the jungle to sweep what turned out to be a small enemy base camp. This was my company. These were my men. And I was still flat on my face, struggling to keep the medic off of me so I could direct the fighting.

Wes Clark’s memoir, A Time to Lead: For Duty, Honor, and Country, is an extremely readable book that wrestles honestly with deep themes about politics, international strategy, and the nature of leadership. It’s the story of General Wes Clark, an irrepressibly optimistic man who believes in leadership, the U.S. Army, and the ability of energetic groups of people with integrity to get things done. Clark’s love is the army and the people in it, and he wrote this book because he believes that America is not having the honest dialogue necessary about our place in the world. By intellectual training and professional background, Clark is a strategist who has sat at the intersection of the military, diplomacy and policy-making since his time at Vietnam. Right now, the army is bearing the brunt of our national choices, while the country at large gives up "very little", which is illustrative of the larger problem America faces when we do not make hard choices or exercise the extraordinary leadership we are so capable of. The story he tells of his life is meant to illustrate how to make these hard choices, and how to lead.

Clark grew up poor in Little Rock, Arkansas, as his father died of a heart attack when he was four, forcing his mother to move back to Little Rock to live with her parents as a working single mother. She eventually remarried to a somewhat emotionally unbalanced man, who became his new father. Much of his early life is exactly what you’d expect of a boy growing up in Little Rock at that time; Clark saw prejudice in its most raw form, in the fight between Governor Orval Faubus and the Federal government in 1957 over desegregating Central High School in Little Rock. And Clark had different attitudes about race than his parents, ones that would come out later in his experience in the military and in politics. Overall, Sputnik, public schools, racism, and athletics, as well as the warmth of a mother’s love, were the guiding forces of his Southern flavored childhood. Swimming and school were the hallmarks of Clark’s life in Arkansas, and he tells one episode of his vaguely cruel and inspiring swim coach, Jimmy Miller, forcing him to excel an reach his full potential through public humiliation. Clark’s desire to excel, and to coach others to excel, is a constant theme in the book.

A Time to Lead is in many ways about the various experiences of forced growth and discipline Clark went through. He learned to be a soldier at West Point, with the incredible hazing and pressure at first and then the ability to lead later on. Teamwork, self-discipline, and competitiveness were overlaid onto a process of breaking down egos and forcing genuine authenticity and commitment to public service and the military. At West Point, Clark describes how to was made very clear that part of the job of a soldier was to kill, a profoundly heavy responsibility for teenagers on their way to becoming men. At college, Clark earned a Rhodes Scholarship, met his wife, and determined to dedicate himself to international relations and larger strategic through his commitment to the ‘profession of arms’.

Clark is of the West Point class of 1966 which saw 31 members killed in Vietnam. Unlike most of his class, he did not go right away, spending a few years at Oxford studying and defending American involvement in Vietnam in an increasingly anti-war and anti-American environment. After Oxford, he went off to fight in the war he defended. As the leader of a mechanized company, he was severely wounded. As he tells it, while in the jungle, he came under a hail of gunfire, and one of his men, specialist Mike McClintic saved his life by knocking him to the ground, "becoming my hero for all time." And yet, even as he was being airlifted out of the combat zone, riddled with bullet holes, Clark thought of his three year old son and his wife, and reflected on how good life can be. Vietnam really colored Clark’s sense of the military, and his own sense of self.

In many ways, Vietnam really envelopes Clark’s whole life, as it was at war, in a military becoming progressively weaker, that Clark learned about the necessity of leadership and positive progress. Accepting honest feedback, open engagement with real problems, preparation, and genuine authoritative decision-making were keys to leadership that worked. Without those, he saw that units would and did fail under fire. These principles would serve him well for the next thirty years.

After Vietnam, Clark became one of many young leaders in transitioning the military to an all-volunteer force and rebuilding its somewhat shattered credibility and discipline. The military has a fascinating system for integrating its brightest young leaders into decision-making roles, swinging them through high level civilian positions so they can understand politics and policy-making. Clark went through this system during the 1970s, veering back and forth from an active military commands in the Army to highly political policy-oriented positions. But first he revisited the lessons of Vietnam. While frustrated with civilian hostility to the military, which had only deepened since his time at Oxford, Clark was forced to revisit his institutional loyalty to decision-makers when he had to write a review of David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, and was confronted with the stubborn refusal of military officials to accept criticism. He served at Fort Leavenworth, where he began work on a set of strategic ideas that would later become the basis of the Powell doctrine, and then served as a White House fellow at the Office of Management and Budget in the Ford White House, under Chief of Staff Don Rumsfeld and his deputy, Dick Cheney. He served in Germany, and then as speechwriter to Alexander Haig, the Supreme Allied Commander.

In the 1980s, he moved on to important posts at Fort Cheyenne, the National Training Center, and then built the a Combat Training Center for division and corps commanders. Rebuilding the warfighting capacity of the military was linked to his time crafting these training facilities, where Clark created training simulations so military commanders could fight mock battles and learn from them. This is Clark’s genius, the ability to create what he calls a ‘change engine’ within extremely large institutions, and he makes suggestions throughout the book about how lessons he’s learned in the army can be cross-applied to governance, including scenarios like disaster assistance, nonmilitary intervention, and legal breakdowns. Clark’s leadership throughout the military, and his ability to rethink traditional institutional boundaries and learn from failure, are genuinely revolutionary concepts that he was able to successfully apply. If there is any hope of adapting to climate change or dealing with vast economic inequalities, it will be through internalizing and spreading the concepts Clark was able to bring to the military. Clark’s leadership of a volunteer army forced him to think through traditional social issues, including schooling and health care; as a commander in a peacetime army, he dealt with problems as varied as training materials, new weapon systems, and gang activity among the children of military personnel. And at every stage, he underscores the lessons of West Point and the importance of leadership.

The last part of the book involves Clark’s move from management of military affairs to his ascension into the highest level of geopolitics. In 1994, Clark became the Director of Strategic Plans and Policy in the Pentagon under the Joint Chiefs, serving as the bridge between the national security planning process, the UN, and Capitol Hill. He had known Bill Clinton briefly at college, which immediately made him a target of partisan Republican attacks, and as he was in the hot seat coordinating strategy, the constant crises – Haiti, Rwanda, North Korea, the Balkans, and the Middle East – he got a fast-track introduction to DC. Though he was a nonpartisan military officer, Clark’s earlier politics seemed organized around Republican ‘grown-ups’, people like Alexander Haig and Colin Powell. His wife even volunteered in the office of Kay Bailey Hutchinson. To me, it reads like his thinking began to shift when he came to DC, though his real political movement did not take place until much later. Clark’s search for an overarching national strategy was constrained by an extremely partisan environment and a lack of funding for any agency except the military, which had become the go-to body for nearly all foreign policy activities. It was during this period that Clark, though he pushed internally for action in Rwanda, failed to generate the necessary action to stop the genocide, something that he would later remember in the Balkans. In his DC position, he began to understand his later opponent Milosevic, and worked with Dick Holbrooke, Tony Lake, and Defense Secretary Perry on the emerging NATO mission in the region.

Before the capstone episode of Clark’s military career – the conflict with Milosevic – Clark was promoted to a position as Commander in Chief (CINC), US Southern Command, responsible for our military presence in much of Central and South America, where he continued to develop broader thematic ideas about the principled American strategy in a post-Cold War world. He oversaw the counter-narcotics mission, and began working closely with John Negroponte on tighter relations with Panama. It was a relatively short deployment, and Clark offers few real details as to what he did, but he was shortly returned to Europe at the CINC, US European Command and NATO Supreme Allied Commander. Clark’s exploits in this position are more fully described in his other books, Waging Modern War and Winning Modern Wars, but he does discuss in great details the intersection between diplomacy, force, and personal relationships.

The defining constraint of Clark’s work in the Balkans was his dual loyalty as NATO commander and as a high level American military officer. He had two chains of command, responsive to both a large group of countries and their leaders, as well as operating under the American Commander-in-Chief. He offers an explanation as to why American won this war. Without a clear and aggressive ability to ratchet up pressure on Milosevic through a targeted bombing campaign, strong NATO legitimacy underscored by humanitarian assistance and clear defensive aims, strong effort to hold down civilian casualties, minimal initial force, admission of mistakes, and adherence to international law, the war would not have been won. And not a single American soldier was lost. There’s some revisionist history around the Kosovo conflict, and Clark does take a nice dig at Michael O’Hanlon’s arguments, but the bottom line is that it was an extraordinarily successful approach compared to Iraq or any other modern American war.

After Kosovo, politics took over Clark’s life entirely. He was retired early from the military, three months before his tour was finished. Though he doesn’t describe the internal politics in any details, it’s clear that this was a significant episode for him. As he moved into business, and began exploring his post-military public service options, 9/11 happened, and he was told by an Atlanta Republican that the Republicans would be dominant for because of the crisis, and he ought to join up: "If you ever want to be elected to office, you better become one of us, because we’re going to be in charge for a very long time". This was repulsive to Clark, and as he saw the horrific strategic missteps of Bush in Iraq, he became first a Bush opponent and then a Democrat. Iraq serves as a nice metaphor for a conflict that has ignored all the lessons he had wracked up in his life, about leadership, running military outfits, strategy, and the moral stature of the country. But Iraq isn’t all that moved Clark’s political loyalties. The three interrelated challenges we face – terrorism, the rise of China, and powerful global issues like disease, human rights poverty, and climate change – are ignored or actively made worse by the policies of this administration.

Clark recounts his Presidential his campaign, run by Eli Segal and Mark Fabiani (yes, that Fabiani), in the context of his ideas for America and his belief that the neoconservative framework of ‘smashing states’ needs to be repudiated. He was drafted into the race by a ‘din’ on the internet, as well as calls from luminaries like Charlie Rangel and Jimmy Carter who saw him as an establishment alternative to Dean. Clark discusses the fateful decision not to compete in Iowa, claiming that it was against his instinct but that the decision was leaked to the press and became a fait accompli. The campaign tried to do too much too fast, and when Kerry beat Dean in Iowa, the rationale for Clark over Dean fell apart. I happened to be in Little Rock at the time that decision was made, and that seems to me to be an accurate analysis.

The book closes with Clark’s idea on American strategy going forward. He offers a view of American power in which we engage seriously and systematically with the rest of the world, focus on more equitable development, aggressive moves to limit carbon emissions, and work towards a new consensus on human rights and and intervention. Politically, Clark hopes for a less partisan future with fewer personal attacks and more substantive debate between candidates. He believes the American people are ready for this new kind of leadership, one that recognizes the historic turning point before us and allows us to come together in a crisis. Everything he’s seen in his life suggests that with the right kind of leadership we can rise to meet any challenge.

Ok, so that’s the book, in a nutshell. It’s worth reading, and real consideration. Lots of Very Serious and Important people write memoirs, but few of them are so connected both to powerful elite circles of decision-makers and the netroots itself, and have such a great track record of executing on their ideas. Clark didn’t, of course, win the Presidency in 2004, but he did inspire a range of people to become involved in the political process that are building the tools we use today. For instance, Ben Rahn, one of the founders of Actblue, was a Clarkie, as was Lowell Feld, the founder of RaisingKaine. Digby was a Clarkie, as was I. And so reading Wes Clark’s latest book, a Time to Lead, was a very personal experience for me. It was Clark who brought me into politics in 2002, who inspired me to believe that a different model of politics was possible through genuine leadership. Clark, like Dean, is part of the netroots as one of the first real internet candidates on the left. Like many internet political acolytes, he started out as a relatively apolitical figure who believed that professionalism mattered. He has become radicalized by the conservative movement and then the Bush administration, and began to take our political problems very seriously. In this bucket I’d throw Jane Hamsher, Glenn Greenwald, Wes Boyd of Moveon, Joan Blades, Eli Pariser, Markos, Duncan Black, and James Rucker of Color of Change, as well as many of us who read this site every day and whole host of other frustrated and disaffected professionals throughout the government, the military, and the business community.

So it’s important to understand what Clark, as probably our most prominent champion in decision-making circles, really believes. But as I’ve grown and matured politically, I’m beginning to understand that I have some questions and possible disagreements with his framework. They are at this point mostly instinctive, because I haven’t had time to flesh them out systemically. I would characterize them as threefold. One, how do we deal with systematic bad faith within the political environment? Two, what is the role of ordinary citizens in leading change? And three, how do we handle bad faith among political leaders themselves?

In terms of question one, it seems that the level of twisted bad faith in the political system is quite severe, and cannot be repudiated without intense domestic political debate. This will not be high-minded, and it will not be based on facts, it will be and is organized around the dishonest tactics of the neoconservative and Republican revolutionaries and their wealthy conservative backers. Clark is a strategist, and I would like to see him think through the organization of a systemic ‘change engine’ for the corruption in our political system similar to his work at the National Training Center. After all, we’re reality-based, and we know that just putting out facts and substance does not work to repair this bad faith environment. What does?

On question two, Clark confines his discussions to the the military world, the diplomatic world, political decision-makers and the business world. Left out is, well, us. What is the role of ordinary citizens in crafting the new American strategy? His arguments about leadership make a great deal of sense in the context of existing institutional arrangements, but where does, say, the antiwar sentiment within the public fit? Why has there been so little effective antiwar leadership among elite decision-makers, but also, among citizens at large? Why were Americans at large so passive, and why is there such passivity in the face of over torture and episodes of gang-rape among military contractors? What is the role of the new citizen-enabled activism on the internet that has pushed the debate, and how can it be integrated into existing institutional arrangements?

On question three, what does a real response to the current crisis of political liberalism look like? What happens when certain military and political elites lose their legitimacy within the public at large? Clark is a very experienced man, and he grew up in a bipartisan consensus age, when Sputnik galvanized mass action around education, and Republicans and Democrats agreed on a bipartisan strategy of engagement and Cold War. Clark knows that we face something different today, domestically, as there are real disagreements within the country at large about the nature of our engagement with the rest of the world. Republicans genuinely believe that engagement with the rest of the world through strategic restraint and international cooperation weakens us; many Democrats agree. And systemic bad faith arguments are levied at the American public about torture, military contracting, and national security, with complicity in this dishonest dialogue at high levels. What is the strategy to deal with this? Why can’t we call liars liars? I encountered this question in my interview with Clark about the Petraeus flap, when I asked him what individuals who felt Petraeus was being dishonest should do. His answer suggested that he thought of Moveon as a small group of decision-makers, instead of an organization run by a small group of people but deriving its fundamental legitimacy from 3 million people, most of whom probably do feel that way. There is broad public bitterness at the decision-makers in the military, the business community, and in the political system who enable our current inequitable power arrangements that Clark himself calls ‘the new segregation’. What does an effective response to these bad faith actors look like?

I’m honored to know Clark, and to have the opportunity to discuss his book and his extraordinary life experiences today. I cannot describe just how much his thoughts and leadership have inspired me and many of the people that operate in this new progressive movement. One of the bright spots of the next administration, if it is Democratic, will be Wes Clark as a cabinet member. Please welcome him to the FDL community for this fascinating chat!

Oh, and buy his book!

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Matt Stoller

Matt Stoller