It was one of those accidents of timing: Just as retired Army General Wesley K. Clark had arrived at the Amsterdam airport, en route to the war crimes tribunal of Slobodan Milosevic, news broke of the more notorious villain caught by the Bush administration.
Gone was the spotlight on Clark's fight against a hated dictator. Everyone wanted his views on Saddam Hussein. "We thought we were coming to testify about Milosevic," Clark said yesterday. "It was all about Saddam."
In a sense, it has always been this way for the Clark campaign. The 1999 Kosovo war, in which Clark led NATO forces against Milosevic, serves as both his chief credential for office and his lens for viewing world conflicts. Many of his fans laud his aggressive push for intervention at a time when the Pentagon and American public showed scant political will for it.
But Clark's overarching campaign theme has been his opposition to the war in Iraq, which he has described variously as "elective," "wrong," and "ridiculous." And at campaign stops across the country, Clark is regularly asked different versions of the question: If intervention was the right thing to do in Kosovo in 1999, why was it wrong in Iraq in 2003?
The issue hung over Clark's first day back on the trail yesterday, as he recounted his experiences at The Hague and laid out his ideas for a trial of Hussein. In an interview with Globe reporters and editors, Clark drew what he said are distinctions between Iraq and Kosovo, on matters of timing, rationale, and prewar diplomacy.
Clark acknowledged that both Milosevic and Hussein were dictators who "caused regional devastation." But while Milosevic "was an imminent threat to regional destablization" in the Balkans, he said, Hussein "wasn't an imminent threat, not to the region, not to us, except through bluster against Israel and providing money to the Palestinian suicide bombers."
And while Clark said he believed Hussein still had weapons of mass destruction. He also said that in 2003 the Iraqi army was in disarray and the potential threat was years off.
Clark also drew differences between the diplomatic run-up to both wars, criticizing the United States for intervening without bringing key allies on board. But when asked why the UN war crimes tribunal's two most wanted men, Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, are still at large today, Clark acknowledged that working with allies posed some obstacles to their capture. The hunt for Karadzic, in particular, "required a degree of cooperation with other powers that proved difficult for some in the US government to accept," Clark said. "There remained rumors of some kind of French connection, rumors that have been denied vigorously by Paris."
Those sorts of diplomatic difficulties lead some scholars to believe that the differences between Kosovo and Iraq are not so stark.
"Objectively, I think there's a strong parallel," said Paul R. Williams, a former State Department lawyer focused on Yugoslavia, who now teaches law and international relations at American University -- and describes himself as both a Clark fan and a Republican.
Williams described both as "near unilateral" actions and noted that in Kosovo the Americans providing roughly 80 percent of the air campaign. "This was basically an American show with a NATO flag draped over it," he said.Clark used similar terms to describe his prescription for postwar Iraq, which calls for putting the security operation under NATO leadership. Asked why allies that were unwilling to commit troops to the US-led coalition would be willing to do so through NATO, Clark said they would not have to.
"When you have NATO, it's the United States that's doing it anyway," he said. "It puts the diplomatic piece on top that lets you hope you can diminish the US fingerprints on the operation."
Later, at an event in Concord, N.H., Clark was asked again why it was right to take out Milosevic, but not Hussein. Again, he returned to the argument of timing.
"Well, if everything we knew was the same and I had been the commander in 1991," Clark said, he probably would have intervened to depose Hussein.
"But by the time the Bush administration decided to go in, the ethnic cleansing was long over. Iraq was a failed state," Clark said. "And now, the grounds for the operation are being shifted to sort of look as though it were a humanitarian operation."
While Clark said yesterday regional stabilization was the key reason for stopping Milosevic, his campaign has made much of the humanitarian aspects of that war. His first biographical ad says he "stopped a campaign of terror" and "liberated a people."