Matthew Yglesias likes my defense of Clark, but thinks I ought to concede that there was “murkiness” about his position. I think the murkiness was more external (in the way Clark was perceived) than internal. Part of the fault lay with Clark’s own explanations.
Here’s how I understand what Clark believed, and said:
1. Clark always thought the Iraqi regime was bad news and that the Iraqis would probably be better off with a different regime in power.
2. Clark always thought that Iraq was trying to develop WMDs, and that their doing so would be very bad news for their neighbors and for us. His prewar estimate of the exigency of the risk was less than the Administration’s, but more than the facts now seem to support. That is, compared to the facts and to his current beliefs, Clark’s prewar beliefs overestimated the WMD risk, but less so than the Administration’s (stated) beliefs did.
3. Clark always thought that nailing down Afghanistan and wiping out the al-Qaeda bases there, including capturing OBL, deserved priority over invading Iraq unless the WMD threat turned imminent.
4. Clark thought that there was some prospect, given a sufficiently convincing threat of force, that Saddam Hussein would agree to an inspections program that would either find the WMDs or programs if they were there or make it infeasible for Iraq to mount a successful acquisition effort.
5. Clark always throught that if we made a good-faith effort, or at least a convincing head-fake, at trying to resolve the Iraq WMD/inspections issue short of war, we had a good chance of either eventually gaining UN approval for an invasion or, as a second-best, assembling a big coalition in support of an invasion.
6. Clark — and this is the only truly “dovish” element of his position — did not support invading Iraq solely for the purpose of forcing regime change. He wanted, if possible, to solve the problem without war. That’s identical with the Administration’s stated position at the time, though it differs from the real attitude of the Administration and from the post hoc public justification of the war constructed once the WMD and 9/11-link stories had been discredited.
7. As of October 2002, when the statements supposedly inconsistent with his current views were made, Clark wanted the Congress to pass a use-of-force resolution that did not authorize the use of force immediately and unconditionally, as the resolution finally passed did. He wanted a more restrained resolution that would threaten force but not authorize its use.
8. Given that such a resolution didn’t reach the floor, leaving the Congress with the choice between a resolution he thought too aggressive and no resolution at all, Clark said of a candidate he was supporting that she probably ought to vote for the resolution that actually passed.
9. Asked later about his position then, Clark said that he’d always been against going to war. He allowed himself to be trapped into giving facially inconsistent answers to the resolution question. Those facial inconsistencies can be resolved by distinguishing between the resolution Clark wanted and the resolution he would have been willing to vote for given Hobson’s choice.
Clark is probably getting some “anti-war” votes now he doesn’t deserve on the merits. That is, some voters are using opposition to the invasion of Iraq, as and when that invasion was carried out, as an index of generalized dovishness. In November, if he wins the nomination, he’s going to have the opposite problem. Both sets of voters largely miss the point.
The more someone knows about foreign policy and warfare, the more differentiated that person’s views about fighting wars are likely to be, and the less valuable a simple index of hawkishness will be in predicting his actions. Someone who doesn’t know much is likely to be “for” or “against” wars generically; an expert knows enough to be for some and against others.
That said, where does Clark actually stand on the hawk/dove axis?
Procedurally, he likes multilateralism and coalition-building. That makes him a dove only if the Bush I foreign policy team that brough off Desert Storm consisted of doves.
Clark is prepared to be aggressive about humanitarian intervention; that’s the point of the Kosovo story. That makes him more hawkish for some purposes than the neocons.
In the case of Iraq, he wasn’t willing to take the risks and costs of war just to achieve regime change, given what he saw as the more urgent task of driving a stake through the heart of al-Qaeda. That certainly makes him more dovish in some sense than the neocons. He doesn’t dream of empire.
On the other hand, he was and is willing to put more resources into hunting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and securing the victory in Iraq than Karl Rove & Co. think the voters will tolerate.
The world is a complicated place, and therefore sometimes (not always) the right thing to do is complicated, not simple. A skilled politician can simplify complex views sufficiently to make the voters grasp what he’s up to. An honest politician does so without unnecessary distortion.
My reading of Clark’s performance is that he scores high on integrity, somewhat at the expense of skill. The result has been that his opponents have been able to cast doubt on his integrity. That’s life in the big city.