Patriot Act?

Earlier this month, Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark gave the keynote address at the second annual convention of Military Reporters and Editors (MRE), the professional organization for journalists who cover the military. In his speech, Clark threw in his lot with those who believe that President Bush misled the nation in order to lay the groundwork for the Iraq War. Clark insisted, in his most striking formulation, that the war was "fundamentally elective, fundamentally our choice," and a distraction from the work of fighting terrorism at home.

The timing of these sentiments didn't sit well with some reporters. In his new book, Winning Modern Wars, Clark wrote how as early as November 2001, a senior military staff officer confirmed to him that an Iraq invasion would go forward on the pretext, in the wake of September 11, that Saddam Hussein's regime was a dangerous state sponsor of terrorism. What's more, his source told him -- "with reproach" and "with disbelief, almost" -- that the administration did not plan to stop at the borders of Iraq. "I heard people say there was a list of states," he recalled at his speech to the military reporters. In Winning Modern Wars Clark relates how "deeply concerned" he was at the time by this strategy. He writes how he became even more worried when "the policy was locked in concrete" in President Bush's 2002 "axis of evil" speech. Unlike the rest of us, Clark had evidence in hand to believe what few others even imagined: that what was being locked in concrete, as he writes in his book, were plans for five years of preemptive warfare against not just Iraq but also Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia and Sudan.

"What a mistake!" he records himself reflecting.

In a recent piece in The Village Voice, veteran reporter Sidney Schanberg asked an excellent question. Clark was on the air constantly as a CNN commentator when Congress was debating the resolution that entrusted the president with open-ended authorization for a military strike in Iraq. Why didn't Clark raise his concerns then and there, when he might have helped save the nation from a course of events he now says was a disaster?

During the question-and-answer session after the MRE speech, one reporter asked Clark almost exactly that.

The query was especially pressing given the content of the speech the reporters had just heard. Many were freshly back from risking life and limb in Iraq. Some were also veterans of another battle -- the one to open the Iraqi theater to reporters after the Pentagon locked down access during the war in Afghanistan. Clark began by flattering this audience. "I'm a great believer in the importance of your work," he said, "and I thank you for taking it on. . . . It was patriotic in the highest sense." He went on to offer a bracingly liberal interpretation of a "new American patriotism" as a leitmotif of his address, a patriotism, among other things, "not just about guarding our borders," but "about guarding what makes us distinctive as Americans -- our personal liberties, our right to debate and dissent." In a departure from his prepared remarks, he even praised the experience of serving in Vietnam while that war was being protested in American streets. "In a democracy," he said, "dialogue and disagreement, even in wartime . . . might be the highest form of patriotism." The implication was unmistakable: Clark was just this highest form of patriot. And a brave one at that, for he also stressed in the speech, in an extensive discussion of the Valerie Plame affair, how eager the Bush administration has been to "retaliate harshly against anyone who expresses dissent, questions their facts or challenges their logic."

So ears pricked up when Clark was asked, "When you were on CNN, why did you choose not to help inform the debate on whether to go into Iraq by revealing what [you have been told]?"

He did not acquit himself well with his answer.

"I tried several times to tell this story," he began, then coughed, perhaps in pause to collect his thoughts. "And I'm -- I was hired by CNN as a military commentator. That's" -- another pause -- "I commented on military plans and operations. There were other people who worked the policy piece. And, um, that may sound like not much of a distinction to you, but for CNN it was significant."

This raised more questions than it answered, at least by the terms of Clark's own rhetoric. It is CNN's prerogative, of course, to tell its commentators which subjects to speak on. But what was keeping Clark himself from blundering forth with what he knew, even at the risk of his job? Would that not have been the patriotic thing to do?

His answer continued on a different tack. "Also," he said next, "I kept hoping that what I heard wasn't true."

That's reasonable enough on its face, though it does raise the question of whether a forceful figure like Clark should content himself with wishful thinking on a matter as grave as this. "I kept hoping," after all, is not exactly a presidential sounding phrase.

It was a phrase, however, that he repeated. "I kept hoping wiser heads would prevail," he continued. After United Nations Resolution 1441 was passed, after the Republicans took the Senate in the 2002 elections, "I kept hoping" -- now Clark emphasized the word -- "that the president would turn to Karl Rove and say, 'Karl, let's go over this again. We used the threat of force. We mobilized our forces. We've moved to the region. We've brought the United Nations further than anyone could have imagined. By strong, resolute, forceful American leadership, we've got [the United Nations] actually talking about strengthening sanctions. Whereas two years ago they wouldn't have listened if we'd brought it to them. What more do we want? Do we really want to do this war?'

"But he didn't ask that question, or if he did, he didn't answer it," Clark reflected. "So that's my concern."

Here is my concern. Like so many Democrats eager to defeat President Bush next November, I dearly wish to embrace Wesley Clark for being what he says he is: a gutsy and intelligent foreign-policy truth teller. Is it too much to wish that he had bravely told the truth as he saw it on national TV during the run-up to the war instead of now in his campaign book? Or would that have just made him look like a paranoid crackpot, consigning him to the bin where the establishment stores the reputations of Noam Chomsky and (Wesley Clark supporter) Michael Moore?

Let us, for a moment, instead grant him a generous benefit of the doubt. Maybe he was forging the wisest possible course in service of the longer-term goal of defeating the Bush doctrine at the polls in 2004. That is, maybe he was establishing himself, with admirable discipline, as an evenhanded, nonpolitical and honest broker on the situation in Iraq in order to spend his capital in a devastating presidential run against Bush later down the road. If that's the case, the question to Clark should be about what he did or didn't do behind the scenes, through unofficial channels, to put American policy on a sounder course during the time he was keeping his counsel on TV -- or whether he really did just stand by and keep hoping the problem would go away.

These are not small questions. They point to the most profound questions of all for Democrats in 2004: How aggressive should they be in attacking Bush for his depredations, and how much do they risk sounding like Chicken Littles in making the argument? For Americans do not particularly like those who insist that our leaders are opportunistic liars, even when it's true. (For proof of this, look no farther than the case of those who protested the Vietnam War, whom a majority of Americans despised enough to give Richard Nixon, an opportunistic liar if ever there was one, the greatest landslide victory in history in 1972.)

That, however, is if we grant Clark the benefit of the doubt. If we do not, the question now becomes one about Clark's character -- whether he puts the whistle-blower on a pedestal even as he refused to become one himself. Maybe far from being concerned about becoming a Chicken Little, Clark just chickened out. Did Wesley Clark hold back while broadcasting on CNN in order to keep his lucrative and high-profile job? And if Clark doesn't have the patriotic courage to take on Time Warner, it's worth asking: Does he have the courage to take on George W. Bush?

Rick Perlstein is chief national political correspondent for The Village Voice and the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus.