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SCOT LEHIGH

Clark's scrambled message on Iraq

MANCHESTER, N.H.

WHEN RETIRED General Wesley Clark campaigned here on Wednesday, a short interview with the Globe led to an admission that may help explain the inconsistencies in Clark's position on Iraq.

First some background. My last conversation with Clark about Iraq came when the former supreme allied commander, Europe, spoke at the University of Massachusetts at Boston on Oct. 10, 2002. Congress, that day, was finishing debate on the resolution that clearly authorized the president to use force unilaterally against Iraq if he deemed it necessary.

Back then Clark sounded like a man who thought a tough threat was needed to motivate Saddam Hussein. Indeed, just the day before, while campaigning for New Hampshire congressional candidate Katrina Swett, Clark had told the Associated Press that he supported the congressional resolution despite reservations about the administration's approach to Iraq.

At UMass, as I've previously written, Clark told a questioner worried about the administration's approach that "in some places, diplomacy doesn't work unless it is backed by the threat of force." Further, the general said that the only hope of getting action from Saddam "is by threatening the use of force." And, in our interview afterward, Clark drew a parallel to former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. "What we found in the case of Slobodan Milosevic was that he wasn't going to admit that there was a problem in Kosovo or cease repression . . . unless we threatened him," he said.

That said, Clark also noted that he didn't see any immediate threat from Iraq and said that military force should be a last resort.

Told on Wednesday that last October he had sounded as though he favored the resolution, Clark replied: "The thing was, I would have voted for it for leverage, but had I been there and been part of that process, I would never have voted for it for war. The resolution I wanted was a resolution that would have brought them back to the United States Congress and showed cause before you went to war."

Clark then stressed several times that he would have voted only for "leverage" but never for war. But his pro-resolution remark -- very similar to the comment that tripped Clark up as he entered the race -- obviously worried a press aide. Thus it was that on Wednesday night, Clark called to clarify his stand.

"I would have voted no on that resolution," Clark said during that call. "I had serious concerns that the president had no intention of really building an international coalition." Clark said his doubts came as the result of discussions with friends in the Pentagon.

The general then cited an Aug. 29, 2002, column he wrote for The Times of London. Judging from that column, Clark, like many experts at the time, believed Iraq likely had chemical and biological weapons and was seeking nuclear materials. But the United States had "a year, two years, or maybe five years or more" before Saddam got nuclear capability, and "we need this time," Clark wrote. War might be necessary, but only as a last resort, he opined. Meanwhile, the United States should work to forge an international consensus on Iraq, with focused sanctions, intrusive inspections, and humanitarian efforts to undercut Saddam's repression.

That column largely backs up Clark's contention that he favored a more patient approach. But why did he tell the AP that he supported the congressional resolution authorizing force, and, further, that he would have advised Swett to vote for it had she been in Congress?

That query brought this admission from Clark.

"Because I wasn't following the resolution and I didn't even know what was in the resolution," said Clark. "My message is that I am not a political consultant, period."

Clark added: "Had I been in Congress I would not have voted for it because I would have recognized that the administration was going to use it as an authorization to go to war."

So, to recapitulate: Clark says he didn't know what was in the resolution because he wasn't paying close attention. But had he been in Congress, he would have been aware of the details, and, having known them, his preference for patient internationalism, plus his suspicion of the administration's motives, would have led him to oppose the resolution.

Plausible? Perhaps. And yet, it's an explanation that stops somewhat short of inspiring confidence in the foreign-policy expertise of the Democrats' newest presidential candidate.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com.

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