Clark Shifts Position on Iraq War Resolution

by Dan Balz
Clark Shifts Position on Iraq War Resolution
On Hill Vote, 'Never' Replaces 'Probably'

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 20, 2003; Page A10

Retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark reversed course yesterday on the issue of Iraq, saying that he would "never have voted" for the congressional resolution authorizing President Bush to go to war, just a day after saying that he likely would have voted for it.

On a campaign trip to Florida on Thursday, Clark told reporters, after some equivocation, that he "probably" would have supported the Iraq resolution approved by Congress last fall, though he went on to say that he was "against the war as it emerged" and that he did not believe the war should have been launched when it was.

That statement caught many of his supporters, as well as many of his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, by surprise. Yesterday, in interviews with the Associated Press and Reuters before a speech in Iowa City, Clark offered a revised statement of his position.

"Let's make one thing real clear I would never have voted for this war," Clark told the AP. "I've gotten a very consistent record on this. There was no imminent threat. This was not a case of preemptive war. I would have voted for the right kind of leverage to get a diplomatic solution, an international solution to the challenge of Saddam Hussein."

Clark's reversal on an issue that is central to his presidential candidacy underscored the challenges that a political newcomer -- even one with the high-level experience of the retired four-star general -- faces in entering the race for the White House with so little preparation and with the kind of media attention he has drawn.

Clark has promised major speeches outlining his views on economic and other issues in the weeks ahead, as he tries to put in place the infrastructure of a presidential campaign almost on the fly.

On Thursday, Clark said his views on Iraq were similar to those of two other Democratic presidential candidates, Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) and John F. Kerry (Mass.). Both senators voted for the resolution, but Kerry was far more critical of Bush before the war started than was Lieberman, although Lieberman has been critical of the postwar effort.

Yesterday's remarks in Iowa appear to put Clark in the same camp as Howard Dean and several others in the race who either verbally opposed or voted against the resolution.

Strategists for several of his rivals expressed surprise at the latest turn in Clark's position. Some said the apparent flip-flop will hurt his candidacy.

"I think one of his key attributes is he's a steady, experienced guy; and if you look like you're not sure what you want to say, it hurts," said Steve Elmendorf, senior adviser to Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.).

"If you're going to make the case that 'I have 35 years of military experience and deep knowledge of military and foreign affairs,' on this issue, it would seem you would have a very clear idea of what you want to say," Elmendorf added.

Jim Jordan, Kerry's campaign manager, was asked for his reaction. He sent the following via e-mail "We'll withhold comment until the general's blue-ribbon team of consultants and advisers decide what his position actually is."

Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi was less critical. "I know we were surprised yesterday [Thursday] when we heard he said he would have voted for the resolution," he said. "But, look, he just got in the race. This is a new world of politics, and I think you've got to give him some time so we can learn where his positions are. But we think he's going to have an impact on the race, and other candidates should take him seriously. We do."

Clark's latest statement on Iraq may provide relief to supporters who were drawn to him because of his opposition to the war. Earlier this week, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), one of Clark's most prominent backers, said that he could not back any candidate who supported the Iraq war.

In his first appearance in Iowa, Clark told supporters "The American people want informed, thoughtful, smart, compassionate, strategic leadership. That's what I learned to do in the United States Army."

Later, more than 1,000 people attended Clark's speech on foreign policy, which had been scheduled before he entered the race and for which he was paid.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company