Wesley Clark is betting that his position on Iraq will rally voters to his side and against the re-election bid of President Bush.
In a meeting last week with a small group of journalists in a Manhattan law office, the retired four-star general accused the Bush administration of intentionally manufacturing an excuse for waging war against Iraq — the kind of biting criticism that once helped make Howard Dean the front-runner for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.
"This is the first time that I've seen this country manipulated into war through deception of the American people," Clark said.
Manipulated. Deception. Those are pretty strong words. They suggest that the American people were hoodwinked into backing the war that toppled Saddam Hussein — a charge the Bush administration consistently has rejected.
In his denial that he launched the war for any other reason than to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the world of Saddam Hussein, the president is buttressed by polls that show the nation almost evenly divided over his handling of the war and largely supportive of the campaign he is waging against terrorism.
Disparate issues linked
Most of the contenders for the Democratic nomination, while critical of Bush's handling of the war, also have focused some of their criticism on his handling of the economy and other domestic issues, where the president is thought to be the most vulnerable. This area is what many political analysts think is the "soft underbelly" of Bush's bid for a second term in the White House.
But Clark hopes to win his party's nomination and the presidency by inextricably linking these issues to Bush's handling of the war. That's a risky political gambit. Clark did not participate in the Iowa caucuses Monday; instead he is focusing on New Hampshire next week as his first real test.
The American people "don't understand that George W. Bush did not do everything he could have done before 9/11 to keep us safe," he said. "They don't understand that he took us into a war we didn't have to fight. And they don't understand that the tax cuts he gave went disproportionately to people who didn't need it, instead of the people it could have helped the most.
"And by doing that, he has undercut the very recovery that we should be seeing. We're not producing jobs in this country. We're going to have to carry this story to the American people."
Approval rating steady
That won't be easy. Clark's unvarnished criticism of Bush's decision to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iraq comes on the heels of two widely publicized studies — one published by the Army War College, the other by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace — that raise serious questions about the president's conduct of what he broadly calls the war on terrorism.
The Bush administration "may have set the United States on a course of open-ended and gratuitous conflict with states and non-state entities that pose no serious threat" to this country, Jeffrey Record, author of the War College report, said of this campaign.
The Carnegie report's criticism was even more pointed: "There was no positive evidence to support the claim that Iraq would have transferred WMD or agents to terrorist groups and much evidence to counter" that fear, the study concluded.
The possibility that Iraq had these deadly weapons and might give them to Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization was one of the building blocks of the case Bush made for war last year.
But despite these damning assessments of the Bush administration's rationale for invading Iraq, little damage appears to have been done to the president's overall approval rating or — at least at this point — to his chances of winning a second term.
By accusing the president of intentionally misleading the public about his reasons for launching the Iraq war, a conflict that now has taken the lives of more than 500 American troops, Clark has positioned himself alongside Dean as Bush's harshest critic. He also makes himself a bigger target.
In politics, as in war, bold moves can result in big victories — or crushing defeats.
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