CAMBRIDGE -- Democratic presidential candidate Wesley K. Clark called the war in Iraq a "$150 billion mess" yesterday, saying that administration hawks came to Washington with President Bush seeking an excuse for invasion, and found it on Sept. 11, 2001.
"I think they came into office looking for the opportunity, not quite sure how to get it. And 9-11, presto: perfect opportunity," he said.
The retired four-star Army general was interviewed on Chris Matthews's MSNBC show "Hardball," as part of a series of weekly interviews of Democratic candidates broadcast live from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Clark said that after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, "there was this massive bait-and-switch operation" that allowed war supporters to pursue Saddam Hussein based on flawed evidence as part of the war on terrorism.
"I think they made the decision to go after Saddam, and worked very hard to find the evidence to justify it. But they failed. That evidence was not there. It is not there. It was a wrong war. It was an unnecessary war. And it is a $150 billion mess today," he said.
New polls out yesterday by the Pew Research Center and Franklin Pierce College found Clark in third place in New Hampshire with support in single digits. He placed behind front-runner and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean and Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts. But another poll of New Hampshire voters by WHDH-TV and Suffolk University, also released yesterday, found that Clark was in a statistical dead-heat for second place with Kerry.
Nationally, a Pew poll of Democratic or Democratic-leaning voters found Dean and Clark tied for first with 15 percent.
Clark touted his credentials as the only person to command troops, as he did as NATO's Supreme Allied Commander during the 1999 Kosovo campaign. Clark's NATO leadership became a campaign issue when former Army General Hugh Shelton said in September that "integrity and character issues" were the reasons for Clark's early exit from Kosovo.
Clark insisted that he was not fired when Shelton asked him to retire three months early from the position. Clark said that behind-the-scenes intrigue to ease him out of the position took place without then-President Clinton's permission or knowledge.
"This was a behind-the-back power play," he said. "Bill Clinton told me himself he had nothing to do with it, and I believe him."