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Politics without platitudes

Published Sep. 2, 2005

Books by presidential candidates are rarely riveting reads. They are instead akin to those mind-numbing campaign speeches on the rubber chicken circuit: What counts is not what is said, but how tritely it is said.

Here, for example, is a sentence from Call to Service: My Vision for a Better America, out last month, with author John Kerry in full platitude mode: "I see an America where, in a seamless web of service and concern, we offer Americans the challenge and the chance to do their duty _ and an America where Americans, in turn, step forward and give something back."

The word America is a favorite for these vote-for-me books. Especially in titles. Next month Howard Dean will publish Winning Back America. This month Dennis Kucinich offers a compilation of his speeches called A Prayer for America (named after the antiwar speech that launched his candidacy).

Also popular, for those who understand the importance of branding, is getting the name of the candidate in the title: Joseph Lieberman is a Pious Liberal and Other Observations by Joseph Lieberman and his wife, Hadassah. We Will Prevail: George W. Bush on War, Terrorism and Freedom, another compilation of speeches, which carries the president's byline.

Or better yet, get both the candidate's name and America in the title as in Al on America by Al Sharpton, now out in paperback.

All of these books I would recommend highly to the already convinced.

All, that is, save one. Yes, the word American is in its title and, yes, it has been published conveniently to coincide with the author's entry into the presidential race. But Gen. Wesley K. Clark's Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism, and the American Empire is not your usual campaign prop.

Clark is mercifully short on platitudes and his campaign pitch is saved for the last page. In fact, even if he were not running for president, I would urge those who can influence American foreign policy to read his book. It presents coherent analyses _ of the war in Iraq, the battle against terrorism and, most importantly, America as empire. Clark obviously is a man who has thought through what America's foreign policy can and cannot do.

Formerly serving as the supreme commander of American and NATO forces in Europe, Clark gives little space in Winning Modern Wars to domestic issues, except for a few hurried paragraphs in the last pages. Instead, he offers a sane view of the rest of the world and an understanding of the uses and limitations of American power. Such wisdom may not get him to the Oval Office _ expertise in foreign affairs rarely does _ but his criticism of America's lack of respect for the constitutional and political processes of other nations should be required reading for those who hope to solve our current foreign policy conflicts

Clark's opponents will maintain that his analyses _ which are sharply critical of the Bush administration's policies not only in Iraq but around the globe _ are politically motivated and that political ambition is driving his views. But, as he protests in the introduction, "The opposite is true: I had the views, and the views themselves brought the political attention. I believe that we need straightforward answers to questions about our policy."

With the eye of a trained soldier and the logic of a man who has found persuasion more effective than coercion, Clark attacks the Bush administration for its initial unilateralism in Iraq, its postwar policy blunders ("Disbanding the Iraqi army _ effectively adding 400,000 angry, armed men to the ranks of the unemployed _ must rank as one of the least efficacious moves in recent U.S. peacekeeping operations") and, more importantly, its decision _ even before 9/11 _ to opt for a more aggressively unilateralist foreign policy. Clark didn't oppose the dethroning of Saddam Hussein, but he was dead-set against doing it without wide international support.

Winning Modern Wars begins with a detailed _ and rather wonky _ retelling of what Clark calls "Gulf War, Round Two." With references to tank-plinking and "Hutier tactics," it can at times be heavy sledding. I found it, however, enormously useful in tracking what went wrong (and right) in Iraq.

Next, Clark dissects the aims and results of Bush's so-called war on terrorism. Although, as Clark repeatedly points out, there remains "no evidence linking Saddam and 9/11, in contrast to growing suspicions that other states, including Saudi Arabia, had many connections with the hijackers," the Bush administration was from the onset interested in using the war on terrorism as a means to address other issues. In one chilling anecdote, Clark quotes a senior military staff officer at the Pentagon saying that Iraq was part of a five-year campaign plan _ to drain the "swamp" _ that included attacks on six more countries (Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia and Sudan). Annoyingly, Clark doesn't name the official and backs off from pursuing such a shocking revelation with a dismissive "this was not something I wanted to hear."

The most valuable part of Clark's book is his frank look at the nature of the new American empire. Unlike classic empires that relied on controlling sources of supply and physically conquering other nations, Clark maintains that the United States has built a "virtual" empire "on a foundation of international institutions created and heavily influenced _ and some might say dominated _ by the United States." Filtered through this network of mutual interdependence, known as "globalization," our foreign policy has run on the "hard power" of military security, but also increasingly on the "soft power" of persuasion and attraction of foreign capital and talent.

Now, however, "coming to power in a disputed election," the Bush administration is unambiguously reversing that direction, putting all that we gained with "soft power" and virtual empire at risk. "The new approach has produced an outburst of worldwide anti-American sentiment," writes Clark. "Opinion polls in many nations showed substantial numbers who thought that "bin Laden was more likely to do the right thing than Bush.' "

U.S. foreign policy has become "dangerously dependent on the military," Clark cautions, a notion also underscored by Washington Post reporter Dana Priest in The Mission, her book on the American military. Clark, who oversaw the 78-day air war in Kosovo, understands first-hand the problems of mission creep. "This is modern war," he says, which demands use of "not just the military forces but also the full array of means at our disposal."

And that campaign pitch? Here it is, in the last three sentences of the book: "Our actions matter. And we cannot lead by example unless we are sustained by good leadership. Nothing is more important."

Meanwhile, for what it's worth, Clark's more meaty campaign book is winning the bookstore battle _ at least according to the sales records of The last time I looked at the site's sales rankings, the Liebermans' book, which came out in March, posted the poorest showing, coming in at No. 1,768,624 with the paperback edition of Al Sharpton's book not much more impressive at 1,235,228. Dean's book was listed at 13,035 (recording advanced sales, as the book is not yet on the market), Kucinich at 11,266 and President Bush's compilation of speeches at 3,494, all trailing behind Kerry's Call to Service at 1,629.

Clark's book clocked in at 581.

Margo Hammond is the Times book editor.

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