A campaign book, intended or not

Presidential campaign books are generally predictable and often unreadable. They typically go like this: Man grows up in privileged, or at least colorful, household, where he is imbued with values. Man has early-life epiphany on the importance of public service. Man gets elected several times, all for the good of “the people.” Man attempts to show why this qualifies him to be president.

There are exceptions, such as when a candidate’s biography is objectively compelling apart from his political aspirations, or when a candidate attempts to bring some new insights to bear on a pressing issue. Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) Faith of My Fathers is an example of the first.

Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, who only recently became the 10th Democratic presidential candidate, takes a shot at the second in Winning Modern Wars. He writes in his introduction, “As I wrote the book over the summer of 2003 there was continuing speculation about whether I might engage in some manner in the 2004 election.” But now that he has declared, the book necessarily functions as a campaign tome.

Clark recaps the successes of Operation Iraqi Freedom, but criticizes the mismanagement of the reconstruction effort, as well as what he calls the public relations battle for the “hearts and minds of civilian populations.” He also hits the administration for making the invasion of Iraq the linchpin of the war on terror.
By now, Clark’s biography is well known: Lead military negotiator for the Bosnian Peace Accords at Dayton in 1995; NATO supreme allied commander of Europe, from 1997 to 2000; CNN military analyst from 2001 to 2003; and presidential candidate.

Thus, Clark should be able to bring as much gravitas to these issues as anyone. But that’s the frustrating part of this book. Clark serves up precious little in the way of new insight. What he gives is often nothing more than the same misgivings about the Bush administration’s foreign policy we’ve all heard before.

The first 80 pages (out of only 200) are simply a narrative of the Iraqi conflict, familiar to anyone who read the paper or watched the news regularly this spring.
Indeed, Clark’s endnotes, replete with references to The Washington Post and The Washington Times, reveals this section to be little more than a clip job.

Ditto the latter half of the book, where Clark offers his criticisms and prescriptions for success. To wit: “The United States could go to war in Iraq this time based on old evidence, fear and intuition perhaps, but not as justifiable self-defense, even under a definition of preemption. Instead it was going to be a case of ‘preventive’ war — an idea that the United States had consistently rejected for itself and condemned in others.”

Well-written and persuasive, to be sure, but nothing a reader could not have gotten from The New York Times editorial page months ago.

That’s not to say that Clark offers nothing of interest. He relates discussions with Pentagon insiders who told him in November 2001 that a strike against Iraq “was being discussed as part of a five-year campaign plan” to go after seven states associated with terror — Saudi Arabia not among them.

In discussing the Army’s first daylight foray into Baghdad, he reveals that the raid was “essentially the brainchild of one American, Colonel Dave Perkins, commander of the 2nd Brigade. He called the division commander, Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, and expressed concern that we might be settling into a siege mentality; he asked permission, instead, to conduct the raid.”

Clark’s praise for the military’s performance throughout the book is rendered somewhat incongruous, however, in that he clearly did not support the action. He writes: “If we wanted to go after states supporting terrorism, why not first go to the United Nations, present the evidence against al Qaeda [and] set up a tribunal for prosecuting international terrorism?” Perhaps, the reader might respond, because a large chunk of U.N. member states hate America, are sympathetic to terrorists and may in fact be terrorist havens themselves.

In the closing chapter of the book, Clark posits that throughout the 20th century, America had effectively constructed a “virtual empire” — “the hub of a network of mutual [global] interdependence,” particularly in the areas of finance and security.
But the Bush administration’s post-Sept. 11 shift toward a “unilateralist and moralistic” foreign policy “put all that we gained with ‘soft power’ and the virtual American empire at risk.”

Finally, Clark arrives at the “vote for me” moment. He offers three basic principles on which America should base its role in the world: First, inclusiveness and the pursuit of allies throughout the world. Second, working with and strengthening international institutions. Third, continued military dominance.

Given the low standards of campaign books, Clark’s effort is among the better you’ll read. But among current affairs books, it leaves a bit to be desired.