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Newsmaker: Wesley Clark

October 30, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: He’s the newest entrant in a crowded field: Fifty-eight years old, born in Chicago and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, he graduated first in his class at West Point in 1966, and went on to earn a masters degree as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.

His 34-year Army career included 18 months as a headquarters staff officer and a company commander in Vietnam, where he was wounded and awarded the Purple Heart and Silver Star, a year as commanding general of the U.S. Southern Command in Panama, and three years, from 1997 to 2000, as the NATO supreme allied commander in Europe.

There, he commanded Operation Allied Force, NATO’s successful intervention in the ethnic conflict in Kosovo. He retired in 2000 as a four- star general. He opened a consulting firm in Little Rock, and has written two books on modern warfare. General Clark joins us now. Welcome, General Clark.

WESLEY CLARK: Thank you, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Welcome back as a candidate this time.

WESLEY CLARK: It’s great to be with you.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s start with the big economic news today — a jump 7 percent in the GDP– more than 7 percent in last quarter. President Bush’s aides, the White House aides are pointing to his tax cuts. Can they take the credit?

WESLEY CLARK: Well, I think that the real issue on the tax cuts is how much better could we have been if the tax cuts had gone to the people who really needed them? I mean, what you had was a lot of people in this country who really needed money. I talk to a lot of big department store owners dealing with ordinary Americans, they said our people are desperate, so when people got that check in July, you bet.

But it’s amazing how much of that tax cut was targeted to people who didn’t need it. Almost a trillion dollars over the next ten years is going to Americans who are making, you know, $150,000-$200,000 a year or more and a lot of these people are saying they don’t really need this money.

MARGARET WARNER: But now you’ve called for reversing some of those tax cuts.

WESLEY CLARK: I have.

MARGARET WARNER: But let’s say this is the beginning of an economic rebound and a year from now, we’re in a full recovery and a booming economy. Would it still be necessary in your view to reverse the Bush tax cuts?

WESLEY CLARK: Well, none of the economic models show that the recovery is going to be strong enough to restore fiscal responsibility. We’re not going to get back to a balanced budget with the amount of the tax cuts that have been given away according to any of the economic models. Even if you take the most optimistic models, you say they’re still too low, boost it up by another third sustained, it still doesn’t get us back to a balanced budget.

So this is a real problem for us because as the baby boom generation ages and retires, then we start drawing off the Social Security money that we’re all putting away right now. When we’re no longer earning that money, we start drawing down that and, you know, we’re operating in the United States under what we call a unified federal budget so there’s an operating budget and then you add in the Social Security together. That’s the deficit that’s $374 billion — the unified federal budget.

MARGARET WARNER: So your answer is you would still take back the tax cuts for anyone earning more than $200,000?

WESLEY CLARK: Yes, we would. And that’s the plan right now. Obviously, you know, I will always look at that. Nobody wants to have to collect tax revenues. But you have to be responsible about what the country needs.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let’s turn to Iraq. More attacks today. There have been horrific attacks this week. If you became president tomorrow, what would you do to restore some sort of security there?

WESLEY CLARK: Well, the first thing I would do is get the big picture right. And what you’ve got is a regional dynamic in which both Syria and Iran are working consciously against the United States in the region because they believe that this administration intends to handle them next.

So that a U.S. success, however it’s defined in Iraq, means that then the United States is free to put more pressure on them. So they don’t want us to have that success so the regional dynamic needs to be worked inside Iraq. We would go immediately back to Kofi Annan at the United Nations and say let’s talk again about what the United Nations or an international organization could do. I would remove that occupying power, that authority there. I’d put it under the United Nations or an international organization. I would ask the Iraqi governing council to take more responsibility for governing Iraq.

One of the things we want to do is we want to avoid the emergence in Iraq of more intense sect feelings. You have the Kurds in the North. They’re armed; they kept their army. They’re very concerned if the Turks were to come in. They’re prepared if anything should go wrong in the rest of Iraq, they’re prepared to say, okay, we have got our independent Kurdistan. You have the Shia in the South. They’ve never gotten really organized and they’re not… they have not been traditionally as radicalized as the Iranian Shia population has, but they’re organizing. There’s a 500,000 man army of god in Baghdad. There’s others and there’s jostling for position and there’s been some assassinations and assassination attempts in there. If that goes the wrong way, we could have real violence in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let’s go back to something you just said, though. Are you saying that the coalition authority that Paul Bremer heads now, you would transfer that authority to the U.N.?

WESLEY CLARK: Yes, I would.

MARGARET WARNER: Would you retain U.S. authority over the military aspect?

WESLEY CLARK: Yes, you must do that. The United Nations cannot do the military piece, but I believe that you can put the United Nations or you can form an international organization as we did in the case of Bosnia to do the political development and the economic development, and you can take Halliburton out of the expanded nation building role it has and let it do what it normally does which is provide some of the logistics back up for the American troops.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. But are you saying you would do this because you think then that would encourage foreign countries to send serious numbers of troops to help?

WESLEY CLARK: I think you do it for three reasons. First, because it takes the United States off the blame line in the eyes of the Iraqi people and especially in the Islamic world. So now it’s not a U.S. occupation. It’s a lot of the different nations who are simply there trying to help because remember it’s not only the international authority but you make the Iraqi governing council immediately take more responsibility. Then number two, I think it improves your chance of getting more significant, more immediate grant economic assistance. Number three, I do think it makes it more likely you’ll get more substantial numbers of foreign troops.

MARGARET WARNER: President Bush said in his press conference Tuesday, we’re not leaving, quote unquote, until Iraq is stable. Are you suggesting that the U.S. would ever leave militarily before the situation was stable?

WESLEY CLARK: I think we have to be very careful about leaving. We don’t want to leave prematurely. We don’t want Iraq to fall apart, but there is a window in there in which we’ve got the optimum chance for stabilizing and after which if we don’t handle things right, it could go downhill and be counterproductive for us.

MARGARET WARNER: So when you say, as you said in the debate Sunday night, you said you want the president… let me get the exact words…you’re waiting for the president, to quote, have a strategy to get out. What is your strategy to get out?

WESLEY CLARK: Well, what I do is first of all I’ve just described it. I put the international authority in. I reduce the influence of the U.S. occupying authority. I put the Iraqi governing council more in charge. I work for the constitution of the Iraqis in the long term. I keep the U.S. in charge of the security situation. I build up the Iraqi security forces. And I would… I do it all the same way we did it, let’s say, in the Balkans. We put out a matrix. You said here’s your political. Here’s your economic. Here’s your military. Here’s what you’re going to do this month, that month, so forth. Here’s where you want to be. Here’s your objectives. Here’s how much it’s going to cost. Show it to the American people.

MARGARET WARNER: Here’s what I’m trying to get at. Do you agree, for instance, with the Bush administration that until the Iraqis have a constitution and a government elected under that constitution that they can’t run the show themselves?

WESLEY CLARK: No, I don’t agree that they’ve got to have a constitution. I mean it took the United States of America seven years after its independence to get a constitution finished. I mean, we started with the Articles of Confederation. So they may work for a long time on a constitution. We don’t want to be there running the show in Iraq for seven years.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you about something you said Tuesday on another foreign policy issue in the speech. You said there’s no way this administration can walk away from its responsibility for 9/11. What are you saying there? Are you saying the president could have prevented the September 11 attacks and somehow failed in his responsibility to do so?

WESLEY CLARK: What I’m saying is the president is the commander in chief. He’s the highest authority in the United States of America. When something goes wrong, he has an obligation to lead and participate actively in the investigation of what went wrong, not to stonewall it. He needs to provide that information in the presidential commission.

One more thing, Margaret: When you look at this, every military commander in the aftermath of a military operation, whether it’s a success or failure, we all do what we call after-action reviews. And the commander participates in it. He’s not exempt. He doesn’t say, well, my intelligence officer didn’t do this. He actually lays it out. They say, what happened exactly? And why did it happen? And everybody fesses up.

Now we don’t know exactly what happened in this administration but what we do know is that the threat of Osama bin Laden was well known and recognized on the 21st of January in 2001. What we also know is that in September on the 10th of September, there was still no plan for dealing with Osama bin Laden.We don’t really know what happened. We don’t know whether that was normal, whether it was abnormal but here is what I think the American people need to know.

I think they need to know that the President of the United States believes that the buck stops on his desk, not on the desk of FBI official in Arizona or somebody in Minnesota who didn’t communicate a memo and so forth and that everything was okay because no one told him.

When you’re the commander in chief, it’s your obligation to know, to set the command climate as we would say in the military — the intensity of your effort. You do your homework. You work the issues. Your highest obligation as the President of the United States next to upholding the Constitution is to assure the security of the United States of America.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me end with a quick strategy question, maybe a brief answer. When you got in this race you jumped to the top of the national polls but since then in the last five or six weeks you’re still in the states where they’re paying attention, New Hampshire, South Carolina, you’re still down in the single digits or maybe just out of them. Is this proving tougher than you thought?

WESLEY CLARK: No it’s not but it is a matter of simply getting an organization on the ground. I think we now have six people on the payroll in New Hampshire. I think the lowest next campaign has 40 and some of the campaigns have 80. We still don’t have a television ad out. But we’re the only one who doesn’t in New Hampshire. So there are some practical matters. It just takes a while.

This is like launching a… starting a transatlantic voyage and building the ship as you leave the harbor. Well, I mean that’s what it was. I never thought I’d be running for the President of the United States.

But I’ll tell you, Margaret, I never thought the United States would be in such a condition as this both abroad and at home. We talked at the beginning about the economic situation: 3.3 million jobs lost — the first administration since Herbert Hoover.

MARGARET WARNER: Wesley Clark, thanks for being with us.

WESLEY CLARK: Thank you.