Profiles in Convenience

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In 1982 Colin Powell called Wesley Clark "an officer of the rarest potential." In 1978 Alexander Haig said Clark was "an officer of impeccable character." We know this because the Clark for President campaign released 200 pages of similar encomiums last week, internal evaluations covering 30 years of the general's Army career—a blindingly impressive document, the stuff of legend and political ads to come. Unfortunately, the paeans to Clark's character, courage and leadership came during a week when he was showing none of the above with regard to the $87 billion that President Bush has requested to maintain the American military presence in Iraq and begin the reconstruction of that country.

Clark's initial position was laughable. He refused to say how he would vote on the $87 billion because he wasn't a member of Congress. Chastened by a Washington Post editorial that called his position "astonishing," he retreated: the $87 billion, he said, should be sent "back to the drawing board." The general was suffering from laryngitis when I called, so an aide told me that Clark favored two separate bills. One would be money for the troops; the other would be for reconstruction—with a dollar amount scrubbed more carefully than the Bush Administration's rather flabby $20 billion and with greater international cooperation, a quicker, clearer transition to Iraqi authority and restrictions on the contracts going to American corporations like Halliburton.

Sounds great. Trouble is, that's not what Congress was voting on last week. It was voting on the $87 billion, up or down. In that case, the aide said, Clark would have to be opposed. Opposed to funding the troops on the ground? I asked. No, he's in favor of that, I was told. But he would still vote against the $87 billion? Yes, Clark was opposed to giving the President a blank check.

Clark was not alone in this embarrassment. I had similar conversations with representatives of the Howard Dean and John Kerry campaigns, and with Senator Kerry himself—who expressed outrage over the way the Administration had gone to war and about Bush's dangerously unplanned post-Saddam campaign. Both Dean and Kerry said they would vote for the $87 billion if it was funded by rescinding the Bush tax cuts for the top 2% of taxpayers. Kerry co-sponsored an amendment proposing just that, which was defeated, leaving the impression that he was more concerned about who was paying for the $87 billion than about how it was being spent. Senator John Edwards took a similar position; he also voted with Kerry in favor of a successful but questionable amendment that would turn $10 billion of the reconstruction money into a loan.

To be fair, the Democrats' near inchoate indignation is understandable. Bush has got us into a real mess in Iraq. Despite last week's tepid support from the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. will not be receiving very much military or financial aid from the world because there is continuing outrage over America's unilateral decision to go to war. The original casus belli was, at the very least, oversold. The post-Saddam period has been marked by American arrogance and incompetence. The prognosis for Iraq is grave. It is not even clear that the three main ethnic and religious groups—the Kurds, Iraqi Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims—can be knitted into a coherent country. But these are not plausible reasons to oppose the $87 billion. The only real alternative to rebuilding Iraq, whatever that takes, is an American withdrawal that would leave the region in chaos and stand as a significant defeat in the global campaign against Islamic radicalism.

My guess is that each of the Democratic presidential candidates who "opposed" the $87 billion would have voted the opposite way if his vote had been critical for passage. Their opposition was equal parts fury and political convenience—the polls say a solid majority of Americans are against spending more money in Iraq. It was also a way for those who favored the war, like Kerry and Edwards, to make amends with the peaceniks who dominate the Democratic primary electorate. Of course, Bush was playing politics too, by combining into one bill the popular funds for troops with the unpopular funds for reconstruction. But the President had the moral high ground: clearly, more money is needed to fund the Iraq occupation.

Is it too much to ask that politics be put aside on this one issue of transcendent importance, where lives are literally at stake? Happily, Joe Lieberman and Dick Gephardt did the right thing last week. "I will support the $87 billion," Gephardt said, "because it is the only responsible course of action. We must not send an ambiguous message to our troops, and we must not send an uncertain message to our friends and enemies in Iraq." This will not help Gephardt in Iowa, but it was an act of courage—Lieberman has made a habit of such acts in this campaign—and a stark contrast to the position taken by both Kerry and Clark, the two alleged warriors in the Democratic field.