There are two choices here. Bill Powell is either an intellectually dishonest asshole who's just acting like he doesn't understand Wesley Clark's "imminence" principle of military intervention or he really doesn't get it. In this article for Fortune magazine, he displays his dishonesty/ignorance near the essay's end:
The bigger question for Clark beckons. Why was Kosovo a good idea, but Iraq not? Clark views Kosovo as a justifiable war in part because it stopped Serbian ethnic cleansing in its tracks as it was happening. For that reason, it was a worthy humanitarian intervention. He argues further that the West, led by Clinton, should have intervened to prevent the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when the Hutus slaughtered more than 800,000 Tutsis.
Few would disagree with that now. But for Clark it naturally raises an obvious issue: What, for example, of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's flat assertion that, WMD or not, history will regard the Iraq invasion as the right thing to do for basically humanitarian reasons—one of the world's greatest thugs and his entire regime is now history, just as Serbia's Milosevic is?
Clark doesn't handle that question as deftly as you'd expect. Not even close, actually. "The imminence of stopping a guy from committing a crime in progress—it wasn't there," he says of Saddam. "In Kosovo you had ethnic cleansing actually unfolding, and we had intervened to stop it. But history will judge us on many things, there are many evil regimes in the world, there are many people that do things that are wrong....Some terrible things have happened in Burma, for example," he says, leaving the point—we're not talking about regime change in Burma, right?—unsaid.
For the most part, this is standard realpolitik criticism of the Iraq war, except that Kosovo has apparently given rise to what might be labeled the Wes Clark Statute of Limitations for Genocidal Thugs. "It was ten years ago," he explains, "that Saddam brutalized the Shiite Muslims in the south, and he used chemical weapons 15 years ago"—the idea evidently being that Saddam gets a pass.
Let's leave aside the fact that this war was supposed to have been about the imminent threat of weapons of mass destruction. Let's forget for a second that the president of one of our "Coalition of the Willing" partner countries could be boiling a political dissident alive as you read this. Let's focus on the point Clark is trying to make and, for which, he should have drawn pictures to help our friend, Mr. Powell.
Yes, Saddam Hussein is an evil asshole. However, it doesn't seem that he has been filling mass graves for ten years. So, considering only the humanitarian aspect of this war, is it right for American soldiers to be sent to die (and, inevitably, kill at least some Iraqi civilians) when there were no major human rights abuses occurring?
There were probably individuals being held for political reasons and some of those individuals were being tortured, but does it make sense for hundreds of Americans to lose their lives for a few individuals? If so, then why not Burma? Why not Uzbekistan? Why not Côte d'Ivoire, Colombia, Burundi, Chechnya, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Argentina, Bahamas, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Dominican Rep, Ecuador, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, St Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuela, Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, DRC, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Madagascar, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, Togo, Zimbabwe, Laos, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Thailand, Bangladesh, Albania, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bulgaria, Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Kazakstan, Macedonia, Moldova, Portugal, Romania, Russian Federation, Spain, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Israel/OT, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco/Western Sahara, Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen? Each of those countries, according to Amnesty International, has had reported incidents of "torture and ill-treatment by security forces, police and other state authorities."
Sending troops into battle in order to take down a leader more than ten years after he committed his most heinous crimes is a clear example of shutting the barn door after the horses have already escaped. Worse, it's like watching the horses escape, then sending your children in, then shutting the door and then setting the barn on fire. It is causing the deaths of our own soldiers to prevent... What?
In the case of Kosovo and Bosnia, there are thousands of people alive today who would not have been had we not intervened. We did, though, and prevented the genocidal urges which permeated that war from achieving their goals (those urges were not limited to the Serbs, I guarantee you). In Bosnia, we were able to do that work diplomatically, but Kosovo wasn't going to be prevented with words. So our country chose to fight to save lives. Period. If we had lost service members in that war, at least we could have rested somewhat comfortably on the idea that those lives were lost for the sake of a greater good.
Clark has never said that Saddam Hussein should have just gotten "a pass" (something that Powell clearly extrapolated from the general's interview) but has suggested that Bush chose war over diplomacy when the latter tool had not been used yet to its full effect. We might very well have achieved an Iraq that had fewer human rights abuses without sending our people to kill theirs. Would it be better to have Saddam on trial or dead? Sure. But how many American soldiers are we willing to let die for that trial? One? 100? 500?
In the end, then, Clark's concept of when to fight is simple: Fight only when the benefits to be gained from battle outweigh the costs. You would think someone who writes for Fortune would get that.
Addendum: I do want to commend Bill Powell on one aspect of his essay. I agree with him that there should be no "statute of limitations" and I think Clark would too. As a matter of fact, while we're looking for Saddam Hussein, I say we go after those who supplied such a crazy bastard with weapons and aid. At least one of them would be easy to find. He runs the Pentagon.