IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Wesley Clark made his first visit to this state as a presidential candidate on Friday, speaking to a crowd at a diner and later to an audience at the University of Iowa. While he didn't hesitate to remind voters that he is from the heartland (Arkansas) or that he was enjoying his visit to the heartland (Iowa), he left many wondering about his specific policy ideas for the heartland.
That is, he didn't fill in many of the blanks in his domestic agenda.
Clark entered the Hamburg Inn, a local diner, Friday morning to a crowd of about 70 people, many of whom chanted, "Win, win, Wes!" Addressing the group from one end of the diner, he paused to liken Iowa to his home state of Arkansas before launching into the topic he really wanted to talk about: foreign policy.
But foreign policy alone seems unlikely to satisfy most Iowa voters. While Clark arguably has the strongest foreign-policy credentials in the Democratic field, voters are going to be looking for him to become more specific on health care and the economy -- and fast. At the diner, Clark made a brief nod to the "jobless" economic recovery and to health care, but he devoted most of his speech to criticizing the Bush administration for invading Iraq and failing to apprehend Osama bin Laden.
In the late afternoon, Clark made more formal remarks -- this time as a university lecturer, not a politician. Sporting a bright red tie, looking military-trim and starting on military time, Clark was greeted by a standing ovation from the capacity-and-then-some audience in a University of Iowa auditorium. N. William Hines, the dean of the law school, introduced Clark and took pains to make clear that the university had issued its invitation in March -- long before Clark had announced his candidacy.
Clark's speech -- on a topic, Hines noted, that had been decided six months ago -- was titled, "The American Leadership Role in a Changing World." Much of it was devoted to explaining Clark's previous jobs as NATO's supreme allied commander and the Joint Chiefs of Staff director for strategic plans and policy -- less-than-subtle plugs for his experience as a military diplomat and administrator of huge operations. (He also gave a shout-out to his former employer, CNN, saying that when he was a military adviser, it was "the fast way to get intelligence on what was going on in the world.") His speech, which lasted about an hour, included references to or discussions of North Korea, Rwanda, Burundi, Germany, Haiti, Cuba, Syria, the former Yugoslavia -- and a Francis Fukuyama book for good measure. Say this for Clark: He won't be failing any pop quizzes from foreign-policy reporters.
Clark drew some laughs from the crowd, quipping at one point about how hard it was to leave his job as NATO commander: "You could call virtually anybody in the world and they'd return your call," he joked. But he soon turned sober, explaining that he saw the fall of the Berlin Wall as a pivotal moment for the United States, when the Cold War was won but when Americans lost their sense of direction and purpose. "There wasn't any meat in the concept of the new world order," he said. "We never thought in our lifetimes it would change." The United States, he said, lacked a unifying foreign-policy strategy after the Soviet Union fell. Republicans thought the military should be brought home, and Democrats thought it should be used in new ways around the world, such as providing aid and relief.
Despite Hines' disclaimer, the talk had the unmistakable tenor of a campaign speech. Clark called for the re-establishment of the alliance between the United States and Europe, as well as greater American involvement in the United Nations. "We have to be interested in what happens beyond American borders," he said. "We have to use international institutions, not condemn and abuse them. The United Nations needs American leadership and American participation."
Clark spoke well and warmly, showing an extensive and impressive range of knowledge about world affairs. At the same time, he added further confusion to the question of his position on Iraq. During the question-and-answer session, Clark was asked about a headline in that morning's New York Times, which read, "Clark Says He Would Have Voted for War." Clark was quick to explain that he would have voted not for war but for "leverage."
"I wouldn't have done it, but we're there," he said of the war in Iraq. "I never saw an imminent threat. . . . It was a major blunder by the United States." Nevertheless, he added, "It's our responsibility now."
"It's very hard to change people's minds when you're bombing them and killing them," Clark said of our efforts to remake the Middle East. He said that Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and, "to a lesser extent," Egypt were the main fronts in the war on terrorism. But, he added, that war should not come at the expense of American rights. "We don't want to give up our liberties for the war on terror or any other war," he said -- and thereby earned the loudest applause of the speech.
But despite Clark's polished performance, not everyone left satisfied.
"I do not think that he clarified the issue of how he would have voted," said David Loebsack, a professor of political science at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. Loebsack, a Howard Dean supporter, says he hopes Clark will end up a Dean foreign-policy adviser.
Sheri Albrecht of Cedar Rapids left her job early to attend the speech. Albrecht, a manager in customer relations at a manufacturing company, was impressed by Clark's foreign-policy experience. "I would have confidence in him over other candidates for foreign policy," she said. "He's impressive." But while Clark did manage a few words about the environment and jobs during the question-and-answer session, Albrecht said she was left wanting more.
Even if she had been at the Hamburg Inn that morning, she wouldn't really have gotten it.
V.V. Ganeshananthan is a graduate student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a freelance journalist based in Iowa City.