FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., Sept. 18 — Gen. Wesley K. Clark said today that he would have supported the Congressional resolution that authorized the United States to invade Iraq, even as he presented himself as one of the sharpest critics of the war effort in the Democratic presidential race.
General Clark also said in an interview that he would probably oppose President Bush's request for $87 billion to finance the recovery effort in Iraq, though he said he could see circumstances in which he might support sending even more money into the country.
On both the question of the initial authorization and the latest request for financing, General Clark said he was conflicted. He offered the case on both sides of the argument, as he appeared to struggle to stake out positions on issues that have bedeviled four members of Congress who supported the war and are now seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.
General Clark said that he would have advised members of Congress to support the authorization of war but that he thought it should have had a provision requiring President Bush to return to Congress before actually invading. Democrats sought that provision without success.
"At the time, I probably would have voted for it, but I think that's too simple a question," General Clark said.
A moment later, he said: "I don't know if I would have or not. I've said it both ways because when you get into this, what happens is you have to put yourself in a position — on balance, I probably would have voted for it."
Moving to fill in the blanks of his candidacy a day after he announced for president, General Clark also said that he had been a Republican who had turned Democratic after listening to the early campaign appeals of a fellow Arkansan, Bill Clinton.
Indeed, after caustically comparing the actions of the Bush administration to what he described as the abuses of Richard M. Nixon, he said that he voted for Mr. Nixon in 1972. He also said he had voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984.
The general's remarks in a free-rolling 90-minute airborne interview suggested the extent of the adjustment he faces in becoming a presidential candidate.
"Mary, help!" he called to his press secretary, Mary Jacoby, at the front of the plane, as he faced questions about Iraq. "Come back and listen to this."
At one point, Ms. Jacoby interrupted the interview, which included four reporters who were traveling on the general's jet, to make certain that General Clark's views on the original Iraq resolution were clear.
"I want to clarify — we're moving quickly here," Ms. Jacoby said. "You said you would have voted for the resolution as leverage for a U.N.-based solution."
"Right," General Clark responded. "Exactly."
General Clark said he saw his position on the war as closer to that of members of Congress who supported the resolution — Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Senators Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina — than that of Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who has been the leading antiwar candidate in the race.
Still, asked about Dr. Dean's criticism of the war, General Clark responded: "I think he's right. That in retrospect we should never have gone in there. I didn't want to go in there either. But on the other hand, he wasn't inside the bubble of those who were exposed to the information."
And at a brief stop at a delicatessen on a trip here to raise money, his very first campaign appearances, he lashed into Mr. Bush's war effort with language that was easily as tough as any that Dr. Dean has used in presenting himself as the antiwar candidate.
"We are going to ask, `Why are we engaged in Iraq, Mr. President — tell the truth,' " he said, standing on a chair. "Why, Mr. President? Was it because Saddam Hussein was assisting the hijackers? Was it because Saddam Hussein had a nuclear weapon that might bring a nuclear cloud?"
The crowd shouted back answers. "Oil!" one person yelled. "Halliburton!" yelled another.
General Clark said: "We don't know. And that's the truth. And we have to ask that question."
On the plane, General Clark also said he might support changing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy governing the presence of gay men and lesbians in the military.
"I'd like to see the military relook the policy," he said. "I didn't say change it — I said relook it."
For example, General Clark said, the military might examine adopting a "don't ask, don't misbehave" policy patterned after one that he said was in place in Britain. Asked what the "don't misbehave" standard meant, the general responded, "I'm not going to set a policy with you winging it in the back of an airplane."
General Clark said his domestic priorities would include health insurance and rolling back parts of Mr. Bush's tax cuts. "I don't see why we can't have health insurance for every single American," he said.
Asked how he would pay for it, General Clark said he was open to some cuts in the budget he is more familiar with — the Pentagon's. "The armed forces are a want machine," he said. "They are structured to develop want."
General Clark said he had enjoyed a visit to New Hampshire over the summer that he said signaled to him how much he would like campaigning. He compared meeting New Hampshire voters to his work as the NATO commander.
"It's like what we did in the military when we went to the motor pool and talked to the troops — only better," he said.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company