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Wesley Clark

Morning Edition: December 2, 2003

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BOB EDWARDS, host: We'll start at whether you would have voted for this war in Iraq, because people are confused. They like you because you oppose the war and yet you say you would have voted for it. Clear that up for us.

Retired Gen. WESLEY CLARK: Well Bob, I bobbled the question. I mean, I bobbled it once and I guess it's the nature of these campaigns. This is an issue that just haunts. It was a discussion and I talked about really the complexity of this. You know, Saddam Hussein was never an immediate threat. I never said he was an imminent threat. I was one of the people that ran the air operations against Saddam during the time I was in Europe. But I never saw the urgency of going to war with Saddam Hussein. I've been very consistent on that. But I did believe that it was important, if we wanted to deal with this problem to deal with it through the United Nations. And I've been very, very consistent on this, and so I would have supported leverage to go to the U.N. I just wouldn't have supported going to war. And this has become an issue in this campaign because one candidate wants to draw lines between others. But I think really that the key issue in this campaign is not this resolution. The key issue in this campaign is the president himself and the way that he misled the Congress and the American people on the urgency of going to war, on his willingness to work for a diplomatic solution, on the right strategy to go after terrorists, and that misleading continues. That's the issue in this campaign.

EDWARDS: Are the Democrats prepared to support a general for president?

CLARK: Well, I don't know. We'll just have to find out. I think it's mixed reviews. On the one hand, they like the idea that I'm strong on defense and that I've served my country. And on the other hand, people want to be sure that I'm compassionate and have concern for the issues that are near and dear to the heart at the very center, really, of what the Democratic Party stands for. And when you've served in uniform and particularly when you've been a general, there's a certain air of authority there that's in some respects the opposite of what many Democrats might have believed their party stood for, which is ordinary people. But I think the answer's very clear. I do stand for ordinary people. I worked for the troops my entire time in the United States armed forces because we know in the United States armed forces that it's not the generals and the colonels that win battles, it's the soldiers, it's the people at the front, the mechanics with their wrenches, the drivers moving the logistics back in the rear. The generals and the colonels are dealing with pieces of paper and computers, but they're not actually affecting the outcome of the war directly. You can lose it at the top, you can't win it.

And I think it's the same way in American society. What's made this country great are the ordinary men and women. I was down in South Carolina the other day and talking to some of the people who work in one of the mills. It's been really tough for these people. This is in Enoree, S.C. A couple of the mills there have closed, people have spent their entire lives, their families, their parents, have worked in these mills. It's been [an] about 100-year string of success. As recently as '98, '99 these mills were producing record profits. And now they're failing because as China has entered the world market and the United States hasn't stood up to insist that China meet its obligations under the WTO and the Chinese currency's been pegged too low, these mills can no longer compete. And as I talked to the people there, I thought what a great country we have, how fortunate we are that we've got people with that kind of dedication, with that kind of determination. I talked to people -- one man who worked 52 years in the mills, another one was 39 years -- and... they were hard-working, smart, dedicated, loyal. And I was very impressed by the management, too, the family that had owned these mills because for them, they and the people that work there are a team, they're family, they're a community, they're bonded together, and they're all struggling together. But it was a real inspiration to me to meet these hard-working men and women.

EDWARDS: Can Democrats be confident that you're a Democrat? You voted for Bush the elder, you praised the Bush administration just two years ago at a Republican fundraiser. When did you become a Democrat, anyway?

CLARK: Well, in the United States Army you never have a party, at least most of us didn't as far as I know. You just voted for people that were strong for national security. When Bill Clinton ran in '92 and I listened to him and I had of course known of his record from Arkansas, I found him extraordinarily inspirational and I voted Democratic. I later ended up working around the White House when I was at the Pentagon. I was back and forth across the Potomac for various staff meetings and so forth. And I was impressed with the people in the Clinton administration. They were thoughtful, they were hard-working, they were dedicated, they were patriotic, they gave a lot to this country and thought their way and worked their way through some very difficult issues. So... that's when I learned that the old myths were wrong. That it wasn't that the Republicans were tough and strong on defense and the Democrats were soft and blame America. It was really that the Republican Party had become shrill and partisan and isolationist and the Democrats were working mightily to craft a new strategy to take us into a new world. And that's where I found myself.

EDWARDS: Your reputation in the military is associated with humanitarian intervention and nation building. So how would you handle the postwar challenges in Iraq? How would you reshape the operation in Iraq to make it... more effective in nation building?

CLARK: When you look at Iraq, what we had was... it was a war we didn't have to fight. There was a lot of trumpeting about the threat and so forth. The armed forces had studied this problem for years, literally. We modernized the armed forces, we'd done the war games. It's one of the most extensively, exhaustively planned exercises in American military history -- the getting to Baghdad. And it worked out remarkably well despite a sandstorm. But what wasn't worked [out] is what happened next. I went through the Pentagon in the fall of 2002 just before I testified in front of the Armed Services Committee with a couple of other retired generals and it was clear to me that the homework hadn't been done on what happened next. There was no plan and you have to have thought through a plan. We don't want to occupy Iraq, Bob. We should give this back to the Iraqi people just as rapidly as possible. I think it's possible to give a lot of it back right now. There are locally elected councils. They can send representatives, democratically selected, to Baghdad and constitute an indirectly elected central government. They can be given a staff. They can be given information. They can begin to exercise their authority as they write a constitution...

EDWARDS: But those are the people now targets of the attacks in Iraq.

CLARK: Exactly. It's absolutely essential that we ensure that Iraqis understand that this will not be a fight of Iraqis against an American occupier, but this is Iraqis against Iraqis. And I think until you establish that you don't have a hope of rallying the patriotic nationalistic support of the Iraqi people to protect their own emergent government. And so, that's the first step. We need to get an international authority in to oversee it. You're not going to be able to pull out the U.S. troops right away, but I think you do have to look at the U.S. troop contribution. You know, our troops there, it's a tremendous army but it's a war-fighting army and now it's doing something it hasn't been organized or trained to do. A lot of the units like the 101st have earned a great reputation for trying to promote democratic institutions in their areas, but we don't have the trained corps of linguists, we don't have the distribution of advisers and people who are really day by day with the Iraqis, and especially with these emerging Iraqi security elements that we're training and dropping off. And when we leave them alone, they don't have the authority, they don't have the capability to resist the attacks by the insurgents. A couple of them have been knocked off after we've set them up and left them there. We've got to be very careful about this because... if this continues this will disrupt the path to a success in Iraq.

EDWARDS: What do you want to do about the other war, the war against terrorism, against al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden?

CLARK: Well, the war in Iraq really was a distraction in the war against terror. That's why the Republican ad that's come out is so offensive and misleading. It says that Democrats are attacking -- it doesn't say Democrats -- it says opponents who are attacking the president for attacking terrorists. No, that's not true. We're attacking the president because he's not attacking terrorists. The war in Iraq's been a distraction. If you want to attack the terrorists, you have to get international law on your side, you have to build... an international legal framework, you have to work with information sharing and police, and you have to go after Osama bin Laden. When we started after Osama bin Laden, we really decided to go after the Taliban. And we seemed to be content to kick the Taliban out of Kandahar. And then we let Osama bin Laden escape from Tora Bora.

What I'd like to do is call on the Saudis. It's time... that they face up to the test, form with us a joint U.S.-Saudi unit, go into the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, [with] the ability to work back and forth across that border. Let's take away Osama bin Laden's sanctuary and work against the terrorist elements there. The fact that we don't know how much al Qaeda is doing to lead centrally -- we don't know exactly what Osama bin Laden's role is -- is itself... it is and should be worrisome because it says we've lost some grip on the intelligence that we had at the outset of how al Qaeda works. So I think that we need to work centrally right against the heart of al Qaeda in that still remaining sanctuary in western Pakistan.

EDWARDS: Why have some military officials, including Gen. Hugh Shelton, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, questioned your character and integrity?

CLARK: It's a policy dispute, Bob, that started I guess when I took over as Supreme Allied Commander Europe and I had the mission of making the Dayton peace agreement work. The Pentagon was moving toward a new strategy of preparing two operational theaters of war, one in the Persian Gulf and one in Korea. And at that time, I think there were those in the Pentagon who viewed the Dayton agreement and enforcement of peace in the Balkans as a distraction. They didn't want to do it. And there was a Republican Congress that for various reasons also didn't want to see the Pentagon and the U.S. military engaged there. I remember hosting any number of members of Congress, senators and congressmen, especially those in the Republican Party, and they sneered, really, at what we were doing in the Balkans. And yet we did stop a war that had killed 150,000 [to] 200,000 people, made 2 million homeless, cost Europe billions and billions of dollars in support for refugees, and on my watch the ethnic cleaning was starting up again in the province of Kosovo. And I warned, I asked the... U.S. government to take a look at this.

I was responding to a request from allies in Europe. I was an allied commander, not just a Pentagon commander. I had to respond to the ministers of defense, ministers of foreign affairs, presidents and prime ministers of 18 other countries. And they were concerned about what was happening in Europe. The Pentagon was less concerned and I was told it was a distraction. But I continued to warn of what was going to happen. The U.S. government eventually took recognition of this, adopted my proposals, and when diplomacy failed we fought a war there. And I believe that when you commit American forces, you should commit to win. I had a strategy of escalation dominance. Frankly, I think the Pentagon strategy was just to bomb for a while and hope the problem would go away. And in the midst of my pushing for success on the ground and bringing in the concerns and the Pentagon's determination not to be distracted, the policy differences arose. And I'm sorry that some people let those become personal. I never did.

EDWARDS: You can imagine how this goes over with civilians -- military men criticizing a military man. I mean, this is your strength.

CLARK: Well, I don't know why that's any more different than, let's say, businessmen criticizing a businessman when they've lost out in some of the work or producers in movies criticizing other producers. Normally you don't see it in print but every organization has lots of rivalries and politics and personality struggles at the top. You can read any military history book about what happens in war and you'll see that there's lots of struggles. You know, what happens when you get in a situation when you're committing forces is that every decision now involves men's lives, the future of the nation and even personal reputation, so people take this very seriously. And I'm very sorry that some of my colleagues have spoken out publicly. I would never have spoken out against them, but they did and the American public will just have to appreciate it. I wondered, Bob, at the time whether when I ran it would somehow send a bad signal that perhaps the military was trying to take over the government. But at least there's no danger of that here.

EDWARDS: So, a policy difference. How would your policy in Iraq differ from what the Bush administration is doing now?

CLARK: Well, of course, I said I wouldn't have done it in the first place. But what I'd be doing is working to turn it over immediately to the Iraqis and then I'd be changing the force mix on the ground. I'd run it through NATO, I'd create an international umbrella organization and I would work with allies. I wouldn't have disregarded the allies at the outset.

EDWARDS: To domestic issues. Your health plan falls short of calling for universal coverage of all Americans. Why is that?

CLARK: I don't think that universal coverage in a... you can call it a single-provider or you can call it a single-payer plan, there's two different ways of looking at it. I think that's something that we can look at later. Right now, the urgent situation is to get health insurance out there. My plan calls for insuring every child in America and providing the resources to do it. Up to families making five times the poverty level. So, we'll insure every child in America and then we'll make available insurance for every American if they're not insurable any other way than the same plan that members of Congress enjoy. And we'll set up the risk pooling in such a way that even people who are currently uninsurable can afford the insurance. And we'll help families up to 275 percent of the poverty level buy into these insurance programs. And we'll work to contain costs and we'll move insurance away from treatment of illness into promotion of wellness. To me, those are fundamental changes and there's no reason why under my plan every American can't have effective and real health insurance. But the modeling shows it will reach about 32 million of 44 million people. We'll make special provisions for people who are changing jobs and veterans and reservists and National Guardsmen who are having difficulties with their employer health insurance or other health insurance when they're on active duty or just getting off active duty. And we could well end up covering every American. It's really up to them, but the modeling shows that this health care will be universally accessible and that 32 [million] out of 44 million people will actually buy into this.

EDWARDS: Elections turn on the economy, we're told. How do you differ from your rivals on the economy?

CLARK: Well, I differ from President George W. Bush in that I don't think trickle-down economics works. I don't believe the best way to promote economic growth is to reward the people at the top. I believe the best way to promote economic growth is to reward the people who are actually doing the work -- ordinary Americans, middle-class Americans, working Americans, and the working poor. I think you've got to take measures that distribute the enormous gains in American wealth to help many more people in this country more directly... Several months ago before I announced I was in with the CEO of a major, major retailing chain, and as he explained to me, he said, 'You know, these Bush tax cuts, they don't help the people that are shopping at our stores.' He said, 'Our people, our customers are desperate. They're lurching from payday to payday, spending their money on paydays and then trying to scrimp and save for the next two weeks and we see this as a deepening and worrying trend.' And I think he was exactly right. What you've seen so far under the Bush administration is because of low interest rates Americans have done a lot of home refinancing. And their faith and optimism in the economy has kept us from sliding into a very deep recession. But this administration's plans haven't helped. They have more or less postponed the recovery. It was inevitable.

There is money out there and eventually investors are going to put money back in the stock market because they're not getting returns that they used to get from bonds or from other interest-bearing accounts. And so it is coming back into the stock market and that does help people and maybe it will create this so-called wealth illusion that will continue to promote spending. But we have to help ordinary Americans, Bob. And that means raising the minimum wage, it means giving them the assistance in health care that they need so they can have jobs, it means job-creation programs. I'm proposing a $100 billion job-creation program: $40 billion to go for homeland security-associated jobs, $40 billion back to the states because the Bush tax cuts have caused states to cut services, cut jobs or raise taxes and that's not good for the economy, and we've put $20 billion into employment tax credits. So, I think we have to work directly on jobs, get the money out to ordinary people. They're the center of the American economy. That's what made this country great.

EDWARDS: Would you roll the cuts all the way back, would you take them away from the middle class?

CLARK: Absolutely not. I don't think you can do enough for the middle class in this country. You can look at the statistics, and I quote these Congressional Budget Office statistics, 1979-1997, that I wrote up in my book and have been referring to elsewhere, but if you look at this 18-year period from the end of the Carter administration into the middle of the Clinton administration, 18 years encompasses all of the Reagan and first of the Bush presidency. You'll see that ordinary Americans, the middle quintile of the American households, income went up about 5 percent. But if you look at the top 1 or 2 percent, their income roughly tripled during this period. There's something wrong with that in terms of promoting democracy and moving the economy forward. And it's why all across America, so many people are struggling despite the fact that we're in the wealthiest country in the world. People have a hard time paying their bills. They're one car breakdown or one illness or one family problem away from financial disaster.

EDWARDS: You've accused the Bush administration of not tolerating dissent and yet you've said you would support a constitutional amendment outlawing flag burning.

CLARK: That's right.

EDWARDS: Isn't there a contradiction there?

CLARK: I don't think so. I think there are many, many ways of disagreeing and expressing your concern with the government. But I'll support just about anything that protects our flag. I love that flag. I saluted it, I served under it, I fought for it. I've seen brave men and women buried under it and it's the symbol that pulls this country together. It's the symbol of what gives us those rights to dissent and I think we ought to honor it.

EDWARDS: You're skipping the Iowa caucuses. Where do you hope to finish in New Hampshire?

CLARK: Well, I'm not measuring any specific finish. I'm measuring the ability to relate and connect to the voters and I think we're doing very well in that regard. Of course, we did get late into this campaign. Other organizations have hundreds of people on the ground in Iowa, New Hampshire and other places and we're just getting started in New Hampshire. We do have offices open, we are doing canvassing of the voters and we're getting a very, very good reception in the town hall meetings. I think we'll finish very well. I'm not prepared to predict where that is, but... I think it'll be a very good finish.

EDWARDS: Is South Carolina a must-win for you?

CLARK: South Carolina is an interesting state because I'm a Southerner and people down there respect the uniform, they respect patriotism, they've got economic problems, they're increasingly concerned that this Bush administration has no economic programs and policies that will affect them. One of the people down there told me the president came through a couple of years ago, a year and a half ago, I guess, and said he had a plan for the textile industry. But he never explained what it was and now they're fighting to stay in business down there, so a lot of Republicans have switched over and will vote Democratic and I think they'll vote for me because I've got the proven track record. I can talk the talk but I've walked the walk both abroad and at home.

EDWARDS: Last one, I skipped it when were back at foreign policy. What would your response be if North Korea actually tested a nuclear weapon or was caught selling or transferring nuclear weapons material?

CLARK: Well, I'm not going to get into the hypotheticals on something like that and I think you can appreciate that, Bob. I believe we should be talking directly to North Korea. We should've a year ago. The administration had its priorities upside down. North Korea was always the greatest proliferation risk, not Iraq. The administration suppressed the news on North Korea, has gone to China to ask China to carry our water for us in those talks and we're not going to get to the bottom of this until we do talk directly and effectively to North Korea. We're going to have to persuade the North Koreans that it's in their interest not to be a nuclear power and that they're safer if they don't have nuclear weapons. Whether or not we're going to be able to do that or not is an open question, and the odds of doing it decline with each passing week that this administration refuses to move forward with real substantive talks. But I think that still the first step is to talk to North Korea.

EDWARDS: Thank you, General.

CLARK: Thank you very much. Good to be with you, Bob.

EDWARDS: Right, bye.

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