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Wesley Clark Calls for a New National Strategy to Unite and Move us Forward

One thing becomes clear from a reading of General (ret.) Wesley K. Clark’s Don’t Wait for the Next War: A Strategy for American Growth and Global Leadership, and that is that however much Neocons love the talk of an American empire, they have no idea how to build one.

In this new and important book, Clark calls for a new national strategy, a “long-term vision,” similar in purpose if not form, to 1823’s Monroe Doctrine, the claim that European influence was not welcome in the New World. This doctrine later came to be known as Manifest Destiny in the hearts and minds of Americans, a “sometimes fractured consensus of values” that united the country and turned it into a global power. If not what Gordon S. Wood described as a messianic sense of purpose (The Idea of America, 2011), what Clark is looking for is something that unites, rather than divides, Americans.

According to Clark, modern American strategy begins with Eisenhower’s Cold War response to the threat of Communism. Employing George Kenan’s strategy of containment, Ike successfully “framed the future,” and “guided the nation forward.” Contrast this with what Ron Suskind calls the “One Percent Doctrine,” Dick Cheney’s default strategy, which proved no substitute for such overarching visions.

Here is how Suskind described Cheney’s grand strategy (if something that isn’t grand and ignores strategy, can be called that) in his 2007 book The One Percent Doctrine:

Even if there’s just a 1 percent chance of the unimaginable coming due, act as if it is a certainty. It’s not about ‘our analysis,’ as Cheney said. It’s about ‘our response.’ … Justified or not, fact-based or not, ‘our response’ is what matters. As to ‘evidence,’ the bar was set so low that the word itself almost didn’t apply.

Ike’s grand strategy, in contrast, was fact-based. It was not grounded on fear and eschewed war for diplomacy. We all remember his prescient warning about the military industrial complex. The Cold War ended, and as Clark says, “suddenly it seemed as if we didn’t need a strategy, and we took a strategic vacation.” We suddenly had no external threat to justify every action we took.

Ike’s Cold War strategy is far removed from what eventually followed, the Clinton-era strategy, which not only lacked the element of fear but any real enemies, as the United States was the world’s sole superpower. Clinton focused on diplomacy and was “pragmatic and improvisational.”

The result is, Clark tells us, that at the “very zenith of American power, the US government had no unified strategy for pulling America together.” Enter al Qaeda – and fear – and a “drifting” Bush administration which saw opportunity to leverage war into re-election: the war on terror.

The One Percent Doctrine is the GOP’s current blueprint for America’s future. Endless war at the drop of a hat. Doubt about Iran? Boom. Questions about Syria? Boom. Swat them all as they come up. The less time thinking about it, the better. We have seen, in the aftermath of Bush’s twin wars, that the aftermath is one of cover-up,lies, and endless and shifting self-justifications.

This isn’t the blueprint Wesley Clark advances in his book. Clark eschews actions that would ever again land us in the middle of somebody else’s civil war, which is the situation American troops found themselves facing in Iraq.

Clark argues that war is no substitute for strategic vision. He makes that point with regard to George W. Bush’s Iraq War: “US civilian leaders [had] a complete lack of the kind of political-military finesse that other successful occupying powers have shown throughout history.” Clark makes the point that “the Bush administration didn’t consult, it dictated.”

It turns out the empire building takes a great deal more than just pummeling your enemies into oblivion. And, as Clark says, “the Bush-era foreign policy was a costly failure.”

Clark goes on to detail the catastrophically ill-thought out missteps of our civilian leadership following the 2003 defeat of Iraq. We destroyed Iraq’s Revolutionary Guard. We even finally caught Saddam Hussein and delivered him to his eventual executioners.

We did not successfully “transition…into occupation activities,” but, rather, fell prey to “increasingly organized armed resistance.” Unfortunately, as Clark points out, the Bush administration had “made few preparations for a long-term struggle.”

And of course, when weapons of mass destruction turned out to be a chimera, the Bush administration began instead to start touting “the spread of freedom,” 2005’s “forward” policy. Clark cites the Bush speech at the National Endowment for Democracy in October 2005, where he likened Islamic ideology to communist ideology and said the United States would replace “hatred and resentment with democracy and hope.”

Right. While Bush succeeded in co-opting the Democrats by using their own language of human rights and democratic values to silence opposition, we have since seen how well that goal of a moment worked.

Bush made al Qaeda’s entry into Iraq possible, and with it, the rise of ISIL, now currently the scourge of Syria and Iraq. As Clark puts it, “there was no clean ending anywhere…American power seemed to be more the power to strike than to build.”

Empire building indeed. Writes Clark,

More than twenty-two years after I heard the Big Idea that the United States should move to dominate the region, we see the results. Who then could have imagined its awful impact? The thousands of deaths, including almost 6,000 Americans? The millions of refugees, the trillions of dollars, and continuing and deepening struggles across the Middle East? Our military actions on top of an already conflict-torn, rapidly modernizing region succeeded in deposing Saddam Hussein and taking down Osama bin Laden, but at a price far greater than most of us would have anticipated.

And problems remain. Not only the Islamic civil war, troubles in Israel, Gaza, Syria and Lebanon, but Iran with not only its nuclear ambition but “reach for regional hegemony.” Russia, he warns, is also active again in the region (both in Syria and Iran).

And, inevitably, there is China, a “winner at our expense,” according to Clark, and now the world’s largest oil importer. Clark points out that China “is deeply invested in Iran and is building an infrastructure by which to capture Iran’s exported hydrocarbons.” Obviously, as he makes clear, “a restructuring of the regimes and relationships in the region by US force is no longer feasible.” Yet this remains the fantasy of the Republicans who now control both House and Senate, and have eyes on the White House.

This is why Clark’s book is so important. As he makes clear, “it is past time for us to look more widely at the international environment and the challenges and opportunities we face elsewhere.” We need a new national strategy, one that makes room for the Asia-Pacific region (and some more “unresolved territorial issues”) and the rising power and influence of China.

The problems are long term and we need some long term solutions, or a “long-term perspective,” as Clark puts it. We can’t ignore the problem and we can’t pretend it exists outside of the wider context of the rest of the world’s problems (or, as Clark terms it, a “single-axis” approach).

To that end, Clark outlines five challenges we face in an effort to frame a new national strategy: 1) Terrorism; 2) Cybersecurity; 3) The US Financial System and “fundamental elements of American national security: the power of our economy”; 4) China, the “world’s second largest economic power behind the United States, with its strategy “of seeking significant concessions from regional neighbors and greater influence abroad”; and, 5) Climate Change, which is ranked as a “national security challenge,” not only a “threat to US security” but “a threat multiplier for instability” in the words of a 2007 Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) study.

Clark makes the point that these are new challenges we are facing, “long-term, persistent challenges,” and they are strategic challenges, for none of which exists “no single, obvious fix or cure or invention.” Clearly, Iran is problematic. Nobody is denying that. So is ISIL. But, as Clark seems to be saying, focusing on these individual issues is failing to see the forest for the trees. As he makes clear, “these challenges are each fundamentally international in character.” They transcend and encompass nations and regions.

Though none of these challenges individually is “likely to destroy the United States,” Clark asserts that “collectively they constitute a fundamental, long-term, existential challenge to the international system and America’s place within it. They should be at the center of our national conversation; they are exactly the grounds over which a national strategy must be unfurled.”

To the extent that you find any thinking at all, you won’t find this sort of thinking coming out of Neocon circles, Tea Party circles, or Religious Right circles. War seems always to be the answer for conservatives, but as Clark tells us, “we cannot shoot our way out of this situation.” So when Clark argues for the need for political consensus, you can only cringe, because as the Republicans have made clear again in the 2014 Midterms, consensus is for chumps.

If, as Clark has Zbigniew Brzezinski arguing, 2014 is a “deflection,” or “turning point,” we are all in trouble. Clark finished this book in June and the midterms may have been that turning point. Does this mean Clark’s point came too late? I don’t think so. The underlying need remains. And if anything, it is more urgent than ever we think, rather than emote, our way out of this mess.

The world is burning, and the Republican Party is fiddling. This is a very complex and thought-provoking book, not the sort of work one reads in an afternoon, or without considerable reflection. A working knowledge of the past few decades’ events will certainly serve the reader well, but Clark is more than willing to educate, and you won’t put this book down without having gotten a good return on the time invested.

“America is sliding,” Clark says, not only in terms of “soft power” (cultural influences) but “hard power” “vis-à-vis” the rest of the world, and Clark’s surmise that “the trends are worrisome” is surely an understatement. Clark doesn’t make such popular culture allusions, but I suspect folks in Joss Whedon’s “Firefly” speak Chinese for a reason.

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