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Burkle Center Senior Fellow Gen. Clark on the Travis Smiley Show

PBS Travis Smiley Show, March 24 2008

This interview was first posted on the PBS website. Click here to watch retired U.S. Amy General responses to Vice President Cheney's interview on ABC News about the grim milestone of 4,000 American deaths in Iraq. 4 minutes and 9 seconds. (Original airdate March 24, 2008.)

Transcript of the Interview:

Retired U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark is a respected voice in public affairs and diplomacy. During his military career of more than three decades, he rose to the rank of four-star general as NATO's Supreme Allied Commander. A West Point grad and Rhodes Scholar, the highly-decorated war hero's commands included the campaign to end the Kosovo War and the peacekeeping operation in Bosnia. Clark was a Democratic presidential candidate in ‘04 and is now a senior fellow at UCLA's Burkle Center. He's also a best-selling author.

Tavis: General Wesley Clark served as NATO's supreme Allied commander from 1997 to 2000 and then went on to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. His most recent book is "A Time to Lead: For Duty, Honor, and Country." He joins us tonight from New York. General Clark, nice to have you back on the program, sir.

Gen. Wesley Clark: Thank you, Tavis, nice to be with you.

Tavis: Let me go right at it. What do you make of the fact that we've been there five years now and as of Easter Sunday, 4,000 dead?

Clark: Well first of all, my heart goes out to the families and to the men and women in uniform who have volunteered and served this country and done it so courageously. It's just a terrible burden we're putting on the men and women in the armed forces and their families, and I think about them first.

No one would have believed, Tavis, that if we had said five years ago that five years later we'd have more troops in Iraq than we did to do the invasion and that we'd have lost 4,000 fine young men and women, no one would have believed it. It's been a war we didn't have to fight, it's been a war that's been mismanaged, been an excessive and over-reliant on the military, a lack of good policy in the region. We've alienated our friends around the world and we've served as a cause for al Qaeda recruiting, and the real winner in the war so far has been Iran.

Tavis: Vice President Dick Cheney earlier tonight, General Clark, on "ABC News" said a few things that I found interesting that I wanted to get your take on, in no particular order. Number one, when asked about troops having to be redeployed so many times - three and four times for some of them - he said that they volunteer, they are in a volunteer army, they volunteered for this, number one.

He made the point, number two, that we have to win - that we have to win at this point. And number three, he went on to say that the president - that is, President Bush - carries the biggest burden here. He argued that the president carries the biggest burden here. Let me take those one at a time and get your thoughts on them. Let me start with the end. What do you make of the fact that Vice President Cheney says tonight that the president bears the biggest burden here?

Clark: Well, I guess you could say he does bear an enormous burden of guilt and responsibility for misdirecting the resources of the United States and for the travesty of going to war in Iraq. I think he bears a tremendous burden from that. But that's not a burden that's anything like the burden these families bear when their loved ones are overseas and they suffer losses, or they come back home and they've got post-traumatic stress disease and other problems, when the little kids don't recognize the parents when they come in the door because of the frequent deployments and so forth.

It's an entirely different kind of burden. So I think that Vice President Cheney is not being fair to the men and women who serve. He should recognize the enormous sacrifices they're making.

Tavis: When the vice president says that we have to win, what does that mean for you these days, and how has that definition of winning changed in your mind over the last five years?

Clark: Well, it's a good question because first of all, we're not winning the way the Bush administration expected. There was a speech that Bush gave a couple of weeks before we invaded in which he more or less predicted that the invasion of Iraq would be followed by this wave of democratic transformation across the region and said that that was his real goal, to promote democracy.

Well, it hasn't happened. In fact, I've been to the region many times. I've not had anybody who's asked me to come to their country and do for their country what we did to Iraq. It hasn't been a wave of transformation. The policy's been a failure. We're not going to have a U.S.-style western democracy, a secular democracy, in place in Baghdad anytime soon. But what can we expect?

Well, I think it is important that we not just line up the troops on the road and march out. The United States has important strategic interests in the region. We've got to have a responsible way of pulling our forces out, and that means underneath the umbrella of a new strategy for the region, a strategy that involves talking to and working with, or at least facing the reality that Iraq has a lot of neighbors, and thus far those neighbors have been more part of the problem than they have been solutions.

I think it's going to take a Democrat in the White House to straighten out the strategy in the region and provide a means for the United States to responsibly withdraw its forces and use them elsewhere.

Tavis: I want to talk in a moment about that particular Democrat that you'd like to see in the White House around this time next year. Before I do that, though, let me that final question, get your thought on it, at least; the notion, when asked about having troops being redeployed three and four times, the vice president said they serve in a volunteer army, they volunteered for this. I ask you, is this what they volunteered for?

Clark: Well, some of them did, but probably a majority of them didn't volunteer for the repetitive tours. But we owe all of those men and women a tremendous gratitude, because most of the United States didn't volunteer to raise their right hand and serve in uniform at all, and these young men and women have. It's a shame that I think the numbers show that maybe 40,000 or more have been sent back to Iraq while they're on what's called stop-loss.

So that's a sort of backhanded draft. They would have left, but the Army told them that even though they volunteered when they joined, they couldn't leave when their term of service was up. So it's not quite accurate when Vice President Cheney says that they've all volunteered. They haven't volunteered for those repetitive tours. But it's a wonderful thing that we've still got so many great young men and women who will volunteer to join the services and serve our country in uniform, and we need it.

Tavis: Thank you. Let me switch gears now to the point you made earlier about wanting and needing a Democrat in the house. The democrat that you are supporting, as we all know, is Hillary Clinton, and yet when this particular issue comes up - that is to say Iraq and her votes in the Senate - it is dogging her, even after all this time on the campaign trail. What say you about that?

Clark: Well, I think that Senator Clinton has explained her reasoning at the time of the 2003 vote adequately and she's been at the forefront of those urging the president to responsibly, strategically redeploy our forces out of Iraq. She's been a leader in terms of taking care of the men and women in uniform and the veterans. She's worked across the aisle to do that. She's brought Republicans together with Democrats to tend to the needs of our service members.

So I don't think there's any issue with how she's voted in the past. I think the question is who's going to do the best job at adjusting America's strategy in the region? Under the Bush administration it's been exclusively military strategy and it's been exclusively, or almost exclusively, focused on Iraq. That simply won't get the job done, and it's been unfair to the men and women in uniform to put that kind of burden on them.

The commander-in-chief, the president of the United States, needs a real strategy for the region. Who will he talk to? What's the vision that he sees? Not just to say in Iraq for, as John McCain says, maybe 100 years, but what's the region, how are we going to deal with Iran? Are we going to permit Iran to have nuclear weapons? If not, how are we going to stop that?

How are we going to deal with Syria? How much effort can we, and should we, be putting into resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue? And what about our friends in the region like the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia and Jordan? How much more can they contribute, and how do we encourage them to do so?

There are a lot of big, big issues on the table that this administration has not adequately addressed. Instead, it's put all the weight, all the burden, on the uniformed military to bring, as what Vice President Cheney calls, a win in Iraq. Instead what we need is success in the region.

Tavis: I don't need to ask you, General Clark, why you think Hillary Clinton is better on this particular issue than John McCain; you've already unpacked that to some degree just now anyway. Let me ask you, though, specifically why on this particular issue, because he's arguing otherwise, why on this issue - that is to say, the issue of Iraq and the region - do you think that Hillary Clinton is better equipped, better prepared to deal with this than Barack Obama.

Clark: Well, I've never talked to Barack Obama on this issue, and so I'm not an expert on his thinking. I will say this - at one point I've seen a 16-month withdrawal proposed and at another point I've seen his former senior foreign policy advisor say, "No, no, that was just the best case." So I don't know exactly where Barack stands, but I do know where Hillary stands.

Hillary stands for a prompt beginning of the withdrawal, and then a responsible withdrawal. She stands for the full use of diplomatic political economic measures to create a new U.S. strategy in the region, one that puts U.S. interests and U.S. allies first and uses the military as one among many different tools in the U.S. tool kit.

And I think she's got the experience and she's got the team around her that can do this, so I think she's our best bet for getting the strategy right in the region and for getting our troops home responsibly.

Tavis: Let me offer this as an exit question. You know as well as I do all the talk in the media and all the pundits taking their shot at what her chances are. It seems that the conventional wisdom is that her chances of getting the nomination are diminishing and all this talk about superdelegates and about Florida and Michigan and the popular vote and who won the most states - you know this stuff as well as I do, being a Clinton proxy. As you sit here tonight, what's your sense of her chances still to win the nomination at this point?

Clark: Well, I think she's got a very good chance to win the nomination. I do think it's about electability in the general election. I think it's about the ability to go against John McCain and stand tall on issues of national security. I've endorsed and supported Hillary Clinton because I think she's the candidate with the greatest knowledge, the most experience.

She's got tremendous character, she's decisive, she'll be a great commander-in-chief for the United States Armed Forces. I think she'll be a great president.

Tavis: General Wesley Clark, I'm always honored to have you on the program. His latest book, "A Time to Lead: For Duty, Honor, and Country." Honored to have you on the program, sir.

Clark: Thank you very much, great to be with you, Tavis.

Tavis: All the best to you.

Clark: Thank you.

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