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CLARK'S NUANCES

Prewar analysis, postwar anger

Wesley K. Clark, the presidential candidate, rips the war in Iraq as "ridiculous." He says it was so irrational that only an investigation by Congress can uncover President Bush's motives for military action.

Wesley K. Clark, the military expert of a year ago, said that Saddam Hussein was likely to have weapons of mass destruction, that the dictator had to be confronted at some point, that there were probably some ties between Hussein and Al Qaeda, and that a strike on Iraq might promote Middle East stability and further the war on terrorism.

A Globe review of hundreds of pages of Clark's public statements on the Iraq war finds the retired general consistent on many points over the past two years. He criticized Bush from the outset as giving up on diplomacy and inadequately planning for the war's aftermath.

But as Clark pursues the Democratic nomination, a rhetorical gulf has opened between his campaign trail criticism and his precampaign analysis. Clark the candidate proclaims: wrong war, wrong time. Clark the analyst seemed to suggest: potentially legitimate war, but far too soon.

At least some members of Congress say they were swayed by Clark's nuanced critique before the war. Democratic Representatives Vic Snyder of Arkansas and John Spratt of South Carolina, in a statement provided to the Globe, said Clark's congressional testimony "helped crystallize our thinking" on an alternative war resolution in the fall of 2002 that would have authorized military action but only with approval from the United Nations or Congress. The resolution failed.

Clark explained the discrepancy in an interview with the Globe this week. He said that when he spoke to Congress, appeared on CNN, and wrote for the Times of London, he held his true feelings back, hamstrung by constraints that ranged from the limitations on his TV contract to a reluctance to criticize Americans in a foreign paper to his efforts to influence Congress with measured speech. Clark also said the post-war absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq further hardened his views.

On the campaign trail, he said, "I'm not testifying in front of Congress. I'm in front of a crowd of people, and they're pretty angry at the fact that their sons and daughters and their husbands and wives and their families have been sent abroad, disrupted, caused them terrible hardship, and they're serving in Iraq in a war we didn't have to fight."

Clark's drive for the presidency is in large part fueled by his extensive military resume. Many antiwar voters view him as uniquely qualifed to question Bush's Iraq policy. And he has evolved into a fervently antiwar candidate, often shouting denunciations of Bush and hinting at conspiracies behind the war.

These days, Clark seems hard-pressed to find any rational explanation for invading Iraq. Asked why the administration would have wanted to, Clark shrugged and said Congress should investigate the White House to produce an answer. He said he had heard "speculation" that the Iraq war had "all been cooked up and passed through to make the president look strong and commanding in front of the American people."

The disparity between the prewar and postwar Wesley Clarks has provided fodder for his political foes. The Republican National Committee has compiled a list of excerpts from Clark's congressional testimony that suggest at least a tacit agreement with some of the premises of the war. Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, one of Clark's rivals, has similarly attacked him.

Clark outlined a litany of reasons why he says he was unable to say in 2002 what he freely proclaims in 2004. On CNN, he said, his contract -- it paid between $10,000 and $38,000 per month, according to his financial disclosure forms -- specified that he was to comment on military affairs and tactics, not on politics. A CNN spokeswoman confirmed this.

Asked why he agreed to CNN's constraints if he opposed the war so vehemently, Clark said he decided to remain on the network because "it's a great platform; a lot of people got to know me."

When it came to his congressional testimony, Clark said he was "trying to give guidance in a way that it would be constructive, in the sense of simply not walking in and saying, `No, no, no, no!' "

And of his Times of London commentaries, which tended to describe US actions in the Middle East in positive or neutral terms, Clark said: "I'm not going to criticize my country directly writing in a foreign paper. I just won't do it."

A May 1, 2002, piece from the Times of London, a right-leaning newspaper, exemplifies the contrast between the old Clark and the new. In the piece, published the day Bush declared major combat over in Iraq, Clark gave his overview of US aims, writing, "The fight was never just about weapons of mass destruction, whatever the rhetoric. Rather, the war was the inauguration of a new US strategy for the region."

He continued: "Next is Iran, supporting terrorism and needing perhaps another two to three years to assemble its first nuclear weapon. The strategy here will be to act indirectly, weakening the mullahs by cutting off support to Hezbollah and attempting to fuel internal resistance . . . Then there is Saudi Arabia. Here the strategy is to reduce the US presence in order to free the Saudis to take stiffer measures against their own extremists. This is feasible now that the US is inside Iraq and, with the promise of Iraqi oil, has the advantage of suggesting to the Saudi government that it is no longer so indispensable to the US."

The piece did not express a strong opinion -- much less a negative one -- of Bush's plans. But Clark said this week he meant it as a warning.

"I'm warning the people in Britain what the US administration's policy is," Clark said.

Clark says his campaign now reflects his true beliefs, calling it "absolutely a liberating experience."

Back in September, on the first day of his campaign, Clark resisted the antiwar mantle.

"Don't use labels," he told the Globe in an interview that day in his Little Rock, Ark., consulting office. "I believe in an effective foreign policy buttressed by the strongest armed forces in the world, using all of the tools of modern statecraft to protect and promote America."

In contrast, when he talked to the Globe four months later, Clark was quick to adopt the logic of fervent antiwar activists.

"When Karl Rove said in 2002 that he was going to be able to make political hay out of the war on terror, when David Frum, the speechwriter, says he was told to make the best possible case for going after Iraq, you know what that means. That means this was not a necessary war," he said.

The Clark campaign is now determined to issue consistent statements on the Iraq war. He spoke from typed talking points during an interview with the Globe.

And in a speech delivered yesterday at the University of New Hampshire, he defended his statements: " I have always been against George Bush's war in Iraq . . . because President Bush failed to use every diplomatic weapon at his disposal before deploying our servicemen and women."

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Raja Mishra can be reached at rmishra@globe.com.

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