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Another Way to Think About Wesley Clark

     I listened to Wesley Clark in Henniker, New Hampshire at the start of the weekend and heard between the lines the classic warning of a first-class warrior against the folly of limitless empire:

     “Beyond the Euphrates began for us the land of mirage and danger, the sands where one helplessly sank, and the roads which ended in nothing.  The slightest reversal would have resulted in a jolt to our prestige giving rise to all kinds of catastrophe; the problem was not only to conquer but to conquer again and again, perpetually; our forces would be drained off in the attempt.”

     The words are not Clark’s, or mine.  They are the reflections of the Emperor Hadrian (ruled AD 117-138), among the last of the great Roman chiefs, as recounted by the novelist Marguerite Yourcenar in the brilliant Memoirs of Hadrian (1954).  To approach Wesley Clark’s thinking about Rumsfeld and Bush blundering into Iraq, I suggest: read Hadrian on the subject of his predecessor Trajan in the very same Mesopotamia 19 centuries ago. 

     “Everything had gone according to his plans,” Hadrian writes of Trajan/Rumsfeld: “The joy of plunging into this adventure, so long delayed, restored a kind of youth to this man…” 

     And of Trajan/Bush: “This fascination, to which the elderly emperor was yielding as if entranced, had lured Alexander before him.  That prince had almost made a reality of these same dreams, and had died because of them at thirty.  But the gravest danger in these mighty projects lay still more in their apparent soundness; as always, practical reasons abounded for justification of the absurd, and for being carried away by the impossible.”

     Hadrian had made his fighting name in gruesome warfare with Dacians and Sarmatians (in what is now Croatia).  He subdued the region of the Danube, and also fortified a Roman wall across England that stands to this day.  But as Emperor he was a studious reformer who commissioned roads, bridges, aqueducts and temples.  He restored the provinces and rebuilt ruined cities in Asia.  He abandoned conquest for another goal entirely: to make Rome eternal and universal–or global, as we say today; and the first step was to stand back from Trajan’s overreaching in Armenia, Mesopotamia and Assyria.  “Rome is no longer confined to Rome,” declare the Memoirs: “henceforth she must identify herself with half the globe, or must perish…

     “I promised myself to save this Rome of mine from the petrification of a Thebes, a Babylon, or a Tyre.  She would no longer be bound by her body of stone, but would compose for herself from the words State, citizenry, and republic a surer immortality.” 

     For Rome it could not be a project mainly of arms:  “Over separate nations and races,” Hadrian concluded, “with their accidents of geography and history and the disparate demands of their ancestors or their gods, we should have superposed for ever a unity of human conduct and the empiricism of sober experience, but should have done so without destruction of what had preceded us.  Rome would be perpetuating herself in the least of the towns where magistrates strive to demand just weight from the merchants, to clean and light the streets, to combat disorder, slackness, superstititon and injustice, and to give broader and fairer interpretation to the laws.  She would endure to the end of the last city built by man.”

     Hadrian set the context in which I heard Clark, another very quick tough military mind who speaks his experience and his curiosity about the world fluidly, with (to my ears) a very striking mix of caution and confidence. 

     On the Bush record, since the first tax cut which Clark admits he celebrated in March, 2001.  Question: what’s changed?  Answer: “Everything’s changed since then.  This administration has taken us into a reckless war.  It’s got an economic policy that is nothing but tax cuts… They’ve made us poor.  They haven’t brought jobs.”

     On Africa, AIDS, and Liberia:  “AIDS is a special case.  AIDS is a national security problem.  It’s destroying countries and societies in Africa.  We have to put resources into AIDS education and AIDS treatment.  It’s right to do it, but it’s also in America’s self-interest to do it, because that kind of human misery is a destructive force unleashed in Africa.  We have the power to fix it…

     “We could have stopped the fighting in Liberia when we first started talking about intervening.  I don’t know what the hesitation was… We dillied, we dallied… We chewed out the survey team commander because he gave a report that was more detailed and more prescriptive than the Pentagon wanted to hear.   I guess they only wanted to hear, you know, what the dimensions of the airfield were… I would have done Liberia, and I would have done it sooner and with a larger force.”

     On the Arab-Israeli conflict:  “I’d give it my personal attention.  It’s a first-order priority of the United States.  I look at what this administration has done: how this President ducked the problem for two years; how even today his roadmap has very little personal engagement, personal connection.  And I think of the terrible loss of life, the waste of human life, the conflict, the hatred.  One thing I’ve learned is–in my work in the Balkans and visits elsewhere around the globe: you very seldom solve political problems by killing people; you intensify them.  The killing needs to stop.”

     On the United States’ standing in the world: “I think we have to be more respectful of other nations.  Obviously we’re going to protect our interests.  We’re not going to allow our workers to be exploited.  We’re not going to allow nations to threaten the United States and we’re not going to allow them to host terrorists.  But: we’re also not going to bully and push and lecture…  There are some people in the the current administration who apparently believed that there was a window of opportunity in which the United States, without the Soviet Union, was free to use its military power and could ‘clean up the mess,’ so to speak, by using its military power… I think it’s a total misreading of the world… I think we have to recognize that the President of the United States is more than an American political leader.  He is a symbolic leader for much of the world, and people look to him to set standards, to treat others with respect, to reach out beyond the borders of this country.”

     And finally, dear bloggers, I got in a question about the Clark campaign’s Web presence, now facing consolidation and criticism (his phrase was “transformation and improvement”) back in Little Rock.  “We’re going to knock their socks off with the Web,” he said.  And about his blog: “Of course I will see it and I will write on it.”

     Blogs are not the least of the modern details Hadrian didn’t deal with.  Listen here.


{ 31 } Comments

  1. Anonymous | September 28, 2003 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    Little Roman History Lesson.

    Hadrian’s combat service was in the 1st and 2nd Dacian Wars, North of the Danube.

    Hadrian engineered his succession to the purple after Trajan’s death, ultimately having to execute a good number of Trajan’s generals to make it stick. He then spent a very high percentage of his reign traveling amongst the army, constantly reviewing them.

    Notice that Hadrian did not abandon Dacia. In fact, he campaigned against the Sarmatians there as Emperor.

    Hadrian had no sympathy for the problems of the Jews, and brutally suppressed the revolt of Bar-Kochba. The diaspora pretty much dates to this period.

    The provinces that Hadrian abandoned were largely reoccupied by the Emperor Septimus Severus.

    And finally, don’t get your history from a NOVEL.

  2. Anonymous | September 28, 2003 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

    I love Clark’s great insight. He says “the killing needs to stop” with respect to the Israeli/Arab terrorist conflict. No kidding?!? Gee, if I had thought of that I’d be running for President. Too bad I’m not 35 yet.

    Seriously, Clark is a policy lightweight. And even if you don’t agree, he is a tool/puppet for Bill and Hillary Clinton, being “one of the rising stars of the Democratic party.” Funny, I didn’t know that rising stars could have no political experience and have just joined the party within the last few weeks. Indeed.

    This guy is a joke. If the Democratic Party wants a credible military man who brings experience and composure to the table, they should select John Kerry over Clark.

  3. Anonymous | September 28, 2003 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    I loved “Memoirs of Hadrian”, but if Calrk shares Hadrian’s taste for young male lovers he’s gonna lose.

    More seriously, I don’t see that Mesopotamia = Overstretch for Hadrain means that Mesopotamia = Overstretch for Bush. We may have some problems with overstretch right now, but the way to handle them, in my opinion, is to pull troops out of Germany, Turkey, maybe even S Korea, not abandon Iraq. The one thing Bush understood and has done right in the war on terror is take the war into the Middle East.

  4. Anonymous | September 28, 2003 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, but I can’t buy the image of Wesley Clark the warrior-sage. His actions in Bosnia were haphazard at best; his arrogance strained relations with our allies; he was relieved of duty early; his troops were contemptuous of him; and he was deliberately snubbed by his superiors. Hugh Shelton specifically accused him of problems of character. Clark is in no sense a Hadrian for our day, but rather an opportunist saying whatever he needs to say to please the people in power at the time.

  5. Anonymous | September 29, 2003 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Try as one may to ascribe depth and meaning to Clark’s campaign statements, that dog just don’t hunt. Clark was brought in to the race by the Democrat status-quo (i.e. Bill Clinton and Terry McAuliffe) for one reason only: to blunt the Howard Dean campaign. The term “sock puppet” has been used; I think “ventriloquist’s dummy” might be closer to the truth.

  6. Anonymous | September 29, 2003 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    I don’t have a strong opinion about Wesley Clark. I like Chris’ analysis, regardless of the reality of Hadrian, the ideas quoted in his commentary are ones that I think are substantial. I read the comment from Hugh Shelton and want to warn everyone that I think it obvious from his response that he has an axe to grind and that his disparagement was dishonorable.

    He made a bad accusation about a fellow soldier’s character as inuendo, without justification or details that can be evaluated. If one are not able to complete such an accusation, then people of integrity leave it out. It’s hard to imagine Clark showing worse character than that.


  7. Anonymous | September 29, 2003 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    I would agree with “eric”‘s comments. Additionally, I would note that Hadrian — by most estimates, contemporary and modern, the worst of the “good emperors” — was not the “symbolic” leader of the world. He really was the leader of the world, or as much of it as the Romans cared to acknowledge — as the record of executions and wars that “eric” refers to shows.

    A much more disturbing thought — and with rather more to back it up — is that America today is not to be equated with the Roman Empire of Trajan, but with the Roman Republic just before its death throes under the Gracchi began. Clark is not be equated with Hadrian, but with Marius, the populist general who politicized the Roman army, and who militarized Roman politics. The thought of Clark being the first in a line of political generals that will end, as the same time this century does, in an American Octavian, might give his supporters pause.

  8. Anonymous | September 30, 2003 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    EGAD! another 4 years of Dick/Bush/Feld.. Thank-ye Clarke! But ultimately the Democrats are to blame to allow for this. Systems fail because systems have decayed, and they cannot counter.

    I concur with John. The NeoCons might think that this is the start of their empire, but I would think the reality is far from it. I don’t think the dismantling will happen in 100 years, but give it 200 years, and a couple more shrub type presidencies, and you got yerself a “well done” republic!

    Bon Appetit!

    P.S. Chris, Please!

  9. Anonymous | September 30, 2003 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Whatever critiques and parallells there are, one thing is certain. The neocons have started moving us from democratic republic to a conquering empire. There is no need for us to follow Rome nor Napolean into history. We already are the most influencial country in history (no need to follow someone else). We need AMERICAN solutions based on AMERICAN principles. True patriots understand this. Therefore, neocons are not in our tradition.

  10. Anonymous | October 3, 2003 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Unless I miss something, the eloquent “Hadrian” quotes were eloquent Yourcenar, no?

  11. Anonymous | October 7, 2003 at 1:56 am | Permalink

    I was impressed. He actually knew something about the grassroots co-existence movement that is forging peace from the bottom up. He has confidence that comes from experience about the uses of war and the non-uses. I think he’s the smartest presidential candidate we’ve seen since JFK ran. I also think he’ll act in Iraq so as to protect the troops, whether that means adding more soldiers or leaving certain areas. My only question is about how well he will delegate.

  12. Anonymous | October 7, 2003 at 1:59 am | Permalink

    Reference to co-existence was to the Israel-Palestine conflict and grassroots activity there such as Open House, Neve Shalom, Abraham Fund, Peace Child Israel and others.

  13. Anonymous | October 8, 2003 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    I still know far too little about Clark and his policy views. Unfortunately he has become one more pseudo-blank screen on which people project their own images. This goes for C. Lyndon’s fatuous comparison with a fictionalized Hadrian as well as Will Cate and Randy H.’s responses. Prefer John Kerry or Howard Dean if you will — I am still undecided — but don’t insinuate that Clark is the anti-candidate or a mere puppet of some Arkansas cabal to prop up your own choices.
    Too many questions remain unanswered. At least we are getting a clear response to the Bush Doctrine of pe-emptive with-us-or-against-us militarism from the man and some occasionally nuanced views.
    Ask questions about economic and trade policies, judicial and politicalappointments, the relative worth of economic and environmental considerations in dealing with global warming and habitat destruction.
    What Clark is quoted as saying re. AIDS in Africa is significant and shows an approach to world issues at least as important as the critique of the war in Iraq. His remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian problem are platitudinous but at least they are platitudes on the right side of the engagement/support-Sharon argument.
    Question your own candidate, not only the latest threat to your preferred first choice.
    Demand more that sound-bite answers and attacks.
    Think for yourself (and lave the facile comparisons to ancient emperors to the pages opf historical journals.

  14. Anonymous | October 8, 2003 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Will Cate, I am afraid you may be right about Clark being a sock puppet. No proof yet, just a bad feeling.

  15. Anonymous | October 14, 2003 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    I’m intrigued by Clark: a Dean/Kucinich supporter, i’m also looking for some foreign policy expertise. As well as a brainy guy to work the country to regain our former standing under Clinter with the rest of the world: we are now ridiculed as a bunch of clown. What does Clark have to say about our job situation? And I AM glad to see that he has indicated he was mistaken about supporting the war. We mustn’t put people down for changing their minds with more input….it’s the guys who remain obdurate and never back down from stupidity that we have to be wary of.

  16. Anonymous | October 19, 2003 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    “Sock puppet” to the Clintons?
    That doesn’t seem very likely if you consider Clark’s well known reputation for bucking the ‘old boy’ military system.
    A prime example of this is the rift between him and Shelton, which you could say was precipitated by Clark’s repeated unwillingness to play “sock puppet” to the military establishment.

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