Q & A with Clark: “I haven’t said I won’t run” for President

Prior to speaking in Salomon 101 Monday night, Gen. Wesley Clark (Ret.) spoke to The Herald about reinstating the draft, the conflict in Iraq and his presidential aspirations.

Herald: Do you support reinstating the military draft?Clark: No. I like the principle of people feeling an obligation to serve their country, but I don’t support reinstating the draft unless it becomes a matter of absolute necessity for the survival of the country. … At the present time I don’t see that. I don’t rule out the possibility that, at some point, it might become necessary, but I don’t see that necessity now.

On Monday, NBC News called the conflict in Iraq a “civil war.” Do you agree with that assessment?Yes.

You have said you oppose setting a timetable for American troop withdrawal from Iraq.I oppose Washington setting a Washington-driven timetable.

Do you support an increase in American troop levels? Not per se, but what I do support is a full kit bag of carrots and sticks when and if we send a negotiating team into the Middle East to work these issues.

If Washington doesn’t set a deadline for troop withdrawal, what incentive does Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have to develop a legitimate military force?Well, let me answer that question with another question: Do you think al-Maliki right now is happy in his position in Iraq? Do you think he feels comfortable and secure knowing that there are Americans there? Do you think he believes that he can just cruise on this way and earn a fat pension as a retired head of state? I don’t. I think al-Maliki knows that he’s on a wild ride on a bucking bronco. And whether America sets a deadline or not, he knows the current situation is unsustainable. The question is, can anyone pull together enough common interests among the Iraqi politicians and the neighboring countries to dampen the fight and to give people a reason to work together rather than to work against each other?

You’ve suggested that the United States engage Iran and Syria in a dialogue with Iraq. How will the involvement of those two fundamentalist countries facilitate the development of democracy in Iraq?Well, you have to be careful what you’re trying to achieve in Iraq. I think what we’re looking for in Iraq is three things – first, an end to the violence; secondly, a government of some type that more or less meets the needs of the people in Iraq; and third, a country that doesn’t become a threat to its neighbors, either explicitly or by virtue of its own internal conditions. The idea that you could impose and inject certain democratic ideas into the Middle East with a Judeo-Christian army – it was probably a loser from the beginning. But no matter how slim the chance to succeed was, there was probably always a certain chance that it could have been successful. But with the policies of the (Bush) administration, there’s no chance in the near term that we’re going to get anything like a Jeffersonian democracy out of Iraq. I think to seek that as the aim is to be unrealistic and to seek a goal that we can’t possibly afford.

How likely is it that you’ll run for president in 2008?I haven’t said I won’t run.

If you do run, how will your campaign differ from your 2004 campaign?In virtually every respect.

Why do you think you were unsuccessful in winning the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004?Because I got in too late. Because I had no political experience. Because I had no money prior to the time I announced, and because I had no staff. Other than that I was a pretty good candidate.

What political experience have you gained since then?Hundreds and hundreds of visits around the country with various groups. I campaigned for, I think, 86 candidates in 26 states in 2006. I was John Kerry’s number one surrogate other than John Edwards in 2004. I raised more than half a million dollars directly for John (Kerry) plus represented him, especially during the final three or four weeks, all through the West.

Do you think that if you run for president, the 2001 speech you delivered at a Republican Party fundraiser in Pulaski County, Ark., will come back to haunt you?Why should it? That’s just part of the freak show. If you read that speech, you’ll see that what I actually do is criticize the directions of the policies of the (Bush) administration. All I did was put a little honey on it by complimenting Colin Powell and some of the people who were in the administration a couple of months after the administration took office. But I never complimented George Bush.

Didn’t you also compliment Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush?I think they should be complimented. I think they did some good things. Most of our presidents have done some good things.

What advice do you have for college students seeking careers in public service?Have a dream and have the courage to follow it.