Retired Army general Gen. Wesley Clark

Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander shares his thoughts on whether Iraqis are ready to take over where American troops have left off.

(Ret.) U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark is a respected voice in public affairs and diplomacy. In a military career of more than three decades, he rose to the rank of four-star general as NATO's Supreme Allied Commander. A West Point grad and Rhodes Scholar, the highly-decorated war hero's commands include the campaign to end the Kosovo war and Bosnia's peacekeeping operation. Clark was a Democratic presidential candidate in '04 and currently serves as co-chair of Growth Energy, an ethanol lobbying group. He's also a best-selling author.



Tavis: Tonight, though, we kick off the week with a look at the much-anticipated address tomorrow night by President Obama as he marks the official end of combat operations in Iraq. General Wesley Clark is the former Supreme Allied commander for NATO and a candidate for the White House back in 2004. He is now a senior fellow at UCLA’s Burkle Center and joins us tonight from Chicago. General Clark, good to have you back on the program, sir.
Gen. Wesley Clark: Thank you, Tavis, good to be with you.
Tavis: On our way out of Iraq, the insurgents increased their activity. What are they trying to say to us?
Clark: Well, they’re trying to say really to the Iraqi people and to their worldwide network that they’re still there, they haven’t been defeated. But the truth is they have been substantially defeated. There are still insurgent elements there; they’re still posing a threat. That’s why we built the Iraqi security forces.
Tavis: What does this do to the argument that many have made – those who oppose leaving Iraq at this point have made the argument that when we give them a date certain, this was expected to happen?
Clark: Well, I think that dates certain, they cut both ways. On the one hand you kind of have to tell the host government that at some point we’re leaving, you’ve got to get yourself ready. They need that as an incentive. Sometimes you have to say it for the American people too, because our patience is limited, also.
Maybe the insurgents say, “Okay, well, we’re going to go get them,” and so forth, but they haven’t been able to do that thus far. We’ve still got 50,000 soldiers there and the United States will have a vital interest in Iraq for a long time to come, I’m sure.
Tavis: To your point, we have 50,000 soldiers still left there, although not engaged in combat, and yet we have seen lives lost – that is to say American lives lost since we announced that we were, in fact, leaving. Since the pull-out began American soldiers have died. Can the American people stomach still losing lives even though we say we’re out of Iraq?
Clark: Well, I think that it’s better if we don’t lose lives, but I think that this is a case where we’re going to have to press through with the policy direction that the president’s given us. We should be trying to make that work. We should be trying to have the Iraqis form a government to build the armed forces that are loyal to that government, to then go after and defeat the insurgents that are there. We’ve still got intelligence on the ground; we’ve still got some counterterrorist forces on the ground.
We can still strike at individual cells of insurgents. We probably are. It’s just not being done by, quote, “combat forces.”
Tavis: There have been a number of campaign promises that President Obama made on the trail that he’s been taken to task for not honoring. This is clearly one promise that he made that he has kept. Was it a campaign promise that he should have kept?
Clark: I think it is a campaign promise he should have kept. This is a very hard step to take for the president. He obviously understands that there are risks in leaving. He knows that if you were to ask the military honestly, the military, looking only at their piece of the problem, would say, “Oh, no, we’ve got to stay here forever,” even though the military can’t afford the stress and strain of both Afghanistan and Iraq.
I think the military is conservative, not in a political sense but in the sense of saying let’s minimize risks, and the way you minimize a risk is just drag this thing out forever, but that’s not necessarily the best course of action for the United States as a whole or for Iraq as a whole.
I think the president’s made a good decision. I think he’s shown a lot of courage in sticking with his campaign promise, and now everybody’s got to pull together and make it work. It’s not just the military; it’s also about our diplomats on the ground and our diplomacy in the region.
Tavis: Are the Iraqi security forces, in your estimation, prepared, ready, to handle this responsibility?
Clark: Well, I’m only reading it. I haven’t been over there to actually inspect the current state of the Iraqi security forces. But from what I’ve read they’re somewhat ready. They can’t do the tough logistics; they can’t do the tough intelligence collection. They can’t necessarily bring precision strike to bear. But they’re on the ground; they do have command and control.
They’re mostly reliable. They can use their weapons, they’re able to maneuver in battalion and maybe sometimes multi-battalion-sized operations, and with the backing of the United States and the backing of the Iraqi people they will be effective.
Tavis: Those troops that we referenced a moment ago, General, those American troops that are left there are now engaged in what we call advise and assist. What does advise and assist mean in layman’s language?
Clark: They’re basically assisting in the planning and the execution of the operations. It may be things like reminding the Iraqis how to coordinate air and artillery; it may be actually getting on a radio and calling in for artillery support or air support in a specific case where the Iraqis can’t do it or don’t have the capability to do it.
It might be in terms also of just doing the training in garrison to say let’s go back over our weapons skills, let’s make sure everybody knows how to do command and control or how to issue an operations order, for example, how to change frequencies on the radio, how to refuel and rearm the equipment at the appropriate time interval.
So there’s a lot of nuts and bolts kind of training that these advise and assist units are going to do also.
Tavis: There are a lot of Americans, General, as you know, who are concerned that all this draw-down, this pull-out in Iraq really means is that many of these soldiers are going to come home for a little while and be shipped off to Afghanistan. How realistic is that in your mind?
Clark: Well, I think that’s very likely, that some of these soldiers are going to end up going back on a repetitive tour, not to Iraq, but this time to Afghanistan. That depends on what happens in Afghanistan, and that’s a function not only of our military on the ground but also of the fact that we’re caught between the insecurities of Pakistan and the insecurities of India, which are all playing themselves out on the ground in Afghanistan while our soldiers are trying to fight a counterinsurgency campaign there.
Tavis: Other than toppling Saddam Hussein, which if you go back to the original mission, the Bush White House changed a number of times why we were going into Iraq; there were any number of reasons they gave. We won’t debate that tonight.
But other than toppling Saddam Hussein, which has clearly been done, is there anything we can label about our engagement in Iraq as victory?
Clark: Well, I think it’s too soon to know. I think victory is too strong a word in any case, but if you can suffer through this commitment and say that you helped create an Iraqi government that’s stable, that’s not aligned with terrorism, that serves to anchor stability in that part of the Middle East, then I think we’ve salvaged a situation.
Maybe you call it victory through salvage, but I wouldn’t be waving the flag about it except on behalf of the American soldiers and Marines and sailors and airmen who served there. They certainly deserve the flag-waving, but as far as the policy itself and going in for a victory, yes, we got rid of Saddam Hussein, we unleashed an incredible instability. We have Iran a chance to come into the region. We served as a recruiting magnet for al Qaeda worldwide.
We cost ourselves maybe $800 billion in direct expenses, 4,500 American lives, 30,000 or so wounded, and maybe 2 or 3 trillion dollars in obligations long-term after that.
So we’re trying to salvage something out of this rather than simply go home in failure. I think the president’s policy is the right step to try to salvage something. It remains to be seen how successful we are, but I think this is the best decision that he could have made at this point.
Tavis: Given that litany you’ve just run a moment ago, and it’s a good list, a thorough list, that doesn’t sound to me like it was worth it.
Clark: Well, I think you have to address it from the perspectives of the various participants. As a policy matter I was against it. I thought it wasn’t necessary to go in and fight that war. For the men and women in uniform, of course, they fought their hearts out. Their families supported them.
They stood up for America, they did what they believed in, they fought with honor, for the most part. With just a very, very few exceptions they were totally, completely great soldiers and airmen and sailors and Marines over there. We can be very proud of them as a nation.
Our forces have hung together in the all-volunteer spirit far longer than anyone would have expected in a conflict like this. So my hat’s off to the men and women of the Armed Forces, from the top leadership all the way to the rank and file in uniform. They’ve done a great job.
I think when you ask was it worth it, I think you’ve got to put it in perspective. For the men and women who fought for each other over there or who fought for their families and what they believe in, I’m real proud of them. I wish we hadn’t been there.
Tavis: Finally, to President Obama’s speech tomorrow night on the pull-out of Iraq, to use your phrase earlier about flag-waving, how does the president in this speech tomorrow balance what he wants to achieve, obviously, politically, which is to take some credit for having kept his campaign promise, but not go so far as to get caught up in the flag-waving or saying things like, “Mission accomplished?”
Clark: Well, it’s the right question and he’s going to answer it. He’s a tremendous communicator, a tremendous orator for the American people. He could be a great teacher and he probably will be recognized as that when his terms in office have been completed.
But this is one of those moments where he’s got to define this for the American people. On the one hand it’s a decision to intervene that in my view wasn’t necessary. He said he opposed it at the time. On the other hand it’s a situation he was faced with when he took office, and he’s made the best of it. He respects the men and women who serve, the generals who helped plan the campaign as they were instructed to do by their commander-in-chief.
He appreciates the support of the American people for this. We’re going to try to make the best we can out of it. We’re going to move forward. There are enormous tasks remaining in Afghanistan, some remaining in Iraq, and of course we’ve got the economy and job creation front and center for the American people.
Tavis: General Wesley Clark, always appreciate your insights. Good to have you on the program. Thank you for your time.
Clark: Thank you very much, Tavis.
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Last modified: October 6, 2014 at 5:11 pm