by Geov Parrish
October 18, 2003
First Published in Eat the State!
Has the militarization of the United States really come to this?
One of the more depressing themes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--particularly in eras, such as this one, when Israel seems hell-bent on more rather than less conflict--is the occasional election wherein one or another former Israeli general, dogged for his career by accusations of assorted war crimes, campaigns for his country's leadership on the platform of being a more rational, seasoned military man, and hence a more effective voice for peace, than his opponent. It's hard to imagine how the Israeli public can conveniently overlook the qualifications for such a candidate's gravitas--namely, the one or another campaign in which he ordered the butchering of Palestinian civilians or refugees (or Lebanese, or Syrians, or whomever) in cold blood.
Of such leaders, and false electoral choices, are perpetual cycles of violence born. And now, the United States is in exactly the same position.
As soon as retired general Wesley Clark announced for president, instant polls showed him as the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination to challenge George Bush. The new war criminal vs. the seasoned one.
Never mind that such polls are irrelevant; the votes of Democratic delegates, not the public at large, choose the party's nominee, and organizationally Clark lags behind candidates like Dean, Kerry, and Lieberman who've been courting and counting delegate votes for a couple of years. But Clark is still a formidable candidate, in large part because of the wide range of his supporters, from the Clintons to progressives like Michael Moore. All seem to see Clark, and more Clark's criticism of Bush's Iraq policies, as the party's best hope for neutralizing the perceived strong public appeal of Bush's military policies, thus allowing the party to expose the rest of Bush's horrid record.
Moore's now taking a lot of heat for his public support of Clark's candidacy, but he's far from the only progressive to back Clark using this sort of logic. People who, in 2000, supported Ralph Nader and railed about the evils of lesser-evilism are now buying into Clark precisely because of his military credibility.
The problem is that in this case, Clark's lesser evil is still awfully evil. It's a measure of how radically George Bush has shifted the political dialogue in this country in three short years that Clark could possibly be seen as a "peace" candidate.
Because Clark has never held elected political office, all we have to judge him by are his record and the carefully crafted public persona he now presents. Rather than simply buying into the walking soft-focus advertisement that is any presidential candidate, one must look at what Clark has done, and what was said about it, before he started running.
Clark's record is remarkably similar to that of Colin Powell, another media favorite who seems to have had a remarkable flair for being at or near all the low points in a quarter-century of US military history. From My Lai to the first Gulf War, Powell always seemed to be in the mix at such times and places, accused of unsavory things. And so it is with Clark:
* In the 1980s, Clark presided over the incarceration in Miami of Haitian refugees fleeing the odious, US-supported dictatorship of "Baby Doc" Duvalier. That period includes numerous allegations of cruelty and mistreatment of prisoners, including the segregation and abuse of HIV- infected refugees and the spraying of refugees with toxic chemicals that have allegedly led many refugees to subsequently develop cancers and physical malformations.
* Clark went from there to Guantanamo Bay, where he was chief of operations of the US Navy's internment camps and where allegations of mistreatment and abuse grew, including physical abuse and malnourishment.
* In 1993, Clark commanded the cavalry division at Fort Hood, Texas, near Waco--when tanks from Fort Hood were among the US government's tools for its fatal assault on the Branch Davidian compound. Senior army officials were part of the planning for that raid, and Clark aides met before the assault with then-Gov. Anne Richards, and then with the head of the Texas National Guard, to brief them on possible plans.
* Next stop for Clark: Head of the US Southern Command, where by 1996-97 Clark was instrumental in implementing US military assistance to Colombia. At that time, with the US army advising the Colombians, paramilitary death squads closely linked with Colombia's military began rampaging through Colombia's countryside, compiling the worst record of human rights atrocities in the Western Hemisphere.
* And, of course, there's Yugoslavia. Clark, after repeated promotions under Clinton, became supreme NATO commander in time to coordinate the bombing of Serbia and Kosovo. That campaign was in many ways the military's training ground for its post-9/11 assaults in Afghanistan and Iraq, particularly in its targeting of civilian infrastructure and its use of depleted uranium and other experimental weaponry. Clark targeted bridges, highways, tunnels, railway stations, utilities, water treatment plants, and other civilian facilities, all of it barred under the Geneva convention and all of it done as well in Dubya's subsequent campaigns. Attacks on Yugoslavian state TV, the Chinese Embassy, and the Petrovaradin bridge (cutting off civilian water supplies) were eerily similar to some of the worst moments of the Afghan and Iraqi invasions. Clark's diplomatic performance during his bombing--touting KLA opposition figures with dubious human rights records of their own and sneering at European military, political, and civilian critics--were also remarkably Dubyaesque.
Serbian officials estimated that over 1,000 civilians died in a bombing campaign based on dubious claims and which left that year's designated paragon of evil, Slobodan Milosevic, more firmly in power than ever. It would take a rigged election and massive nonviolent protests a year later to actually bring Milosevic down (and, eventually, to trial). The efforts of the US never did lead to Milosevic's capture.
During that campaign, Alexander Cockburn, in his and Jeffrey St. Clair's invaluable newsletter (and now website) CounterPunch, relentlessly depicted a Clark that was as unhinged and criminal as he was politically slick. The gist of Cockburn's various articles (one, from April 15-30 1999, is entitled "Meet the Real General Clark: Vain, Pompous, Brown-Noser") was that Clark presented a very different face to superiors and to the public than he did to the people around and under him, and that by doing so he had been able to get away with conduct incompetent, erratic, and questionable enough to have ended the careers of other military men.
But teflon is a critical part of any aspiring American president's moral fiber. And so, today, we find ourselves with a Democratic frontrunner with a track record of bellicose, abusive foreign policy as extreme as and far longer than George Bush's. Clark didn't create the policies that put the US in those troubled places--he was carrying out the orders of Reagan, Bush Senior, and Clark's political patron, Bill Clinton. But once there, allegations follow Clark throughout his career as having a consistent contempt for civilian life and for the rules of war and of law. And even following orders, let us remember, is no defense.
This is our peaceful alternative to Bush?
The point, of course, is not simply to indict Clark. He's only one of many figures in the US military-political establishment who would be eligible for trial if the standards used in Nuremberg were applied today. But Clark's political ascent is an indication of how firmly embedded a bellicose foreign policy is in both major parties; of how feeble the American public's imagination has become when trying to consider how best to conduct ourselves in a shrinking world; and how susceptible progressives and peace activists have become to that same failure.
Among the half-dozen leading Democratic candidates, the three most often depicted by mainstream media as "anti-war" ("fringe" candidates like Kucinich, Sharpton, and Moseley Braun don't count) include John Kerry, who voted to give George Bush a free hand with Iraq; Howard Dean, whose support for Israeli atrocities badly undercuts his Middle East peace credentials; and Clark, with two decades of blood on his hands. And those are the doves--hawks like Joe Lieberman are hard to distinguish from Bush himself, and genuine war critics like Kucinich and Sharpton are ridiculed in the media more often than they're actually quoted.
Replacing George Bush in 2004 is paramount. But it'll take a lot more than that, and over a much longer period of time, to effect any sort of genuine change in a US foreign policy that is now feared and despised throughout the world. Candidates like Clark are part of the problem--not the solution.
Geov Parrish is a Seattle-based columnist and reporter for the Seattle Weekly, In These Times and Eat the State! This article first appeared in Eat The State!