Monday, December 22, 2003

previous entry | main | next entry | TrackBack (11)

Wesley Clark's grand strategy

Andrew Sullivan links to this comment by Wesley Clark on Hardball:

And I would say to the Europeans, I pledge to you as the American president that we'll consult with you first. You get the right of first refusal on the security concerns that we have. We'll bring you in.

Not surprisingly Bush bloggers are all over this seemingly idiotic statement.

But wait a minute. Maybe Sullivan is being unfair. Maybe the larger context reveals a more nuanced view of foreign policy than the quotation itself?

Not really. Here's the exchange in full:

MATTHEWS: First question, up top.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: General Clark, you’ve criticized Bush for his unilateral actions in dealing with Iraq.

CLARK: Right.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: However, if you were in Bush’s shoes right now, what would you be doing differently to rebuild those international bridges you believe have been compromised?

CLARK: Well, if I were president right now, I would be doing things that George Bush can’t do right now, because he’s already compromised those international bridges. I would go to Europe and I would build a new Atlantic charter. I would say to the Europeans, you know, we’ve had our differences over the years, but we need you. The real foundation for peace and stability in the world is the transatlantic alliance. And I would say to the Europeans, I pledge to you as the American president that we’ll consult with you first. You get the right of first refusal on the security concerns that we have. We’ll bring you in.

And in return, we want the same right on your security concerns. And that would reinvigorate NATO. We then put the foundation in place to have a real transatlantic agreement. And working with our allies in Europe, we could move the world. We’re 600, 700 million people, we’re three permanent seats on the Security Council, we’re half the world’s GDP. We can do it. Whether it’s dealing with North Korea, the value of Chinese currency, or the problems of nuclear developments in Iran. And so that’s the essential first step.

In context, the statement reads marginally better, in that Clark wants a quid pro quo -- Europe's right of first refusal on U.S. security policy in return for U.S. right of first refusal for theirs.

However, the trade Clark proposes with Europe would be unbelievably one-sided.

First, on security matters, there is no Europe. There are the first stirrings of a common defense policy, but recent European Union flailings on closer integration suggest that those pledges should be taken with a grain of salt. The United States does not get a lot out of Wesley Clark's bargain.

Second, even if there was a Europe, its interest in non-European affairs does not rank particularly high. Europe is concerned primarily with the state of Europe -- matters like North Korea generate mild interest but few resources. Why, exactly, should the EU get a veto over U.S. policy in Northeast Asia?

On matters of the global political economy, Clark has a point -- 600 to 700 million people and half the world's GDP buys a fair amount of influence, and on economic matters, the EU is a rough equal to the US in terms of economic size.

Even on security matters, consultation with allies -- the intermediate step between simple unilateralism and what Clark proposes -- makes sense. Consultation buys a fair amount of goodwill, even when the parties disagree.

Right of first refusal on matters of national security? This is an asymmetric bargain -- which is diplomatese for saying it sucks eggs.

UPDATE: Ted Barlow below links to Mark Kleiman, who suggests that Clark does mean consultation, that "right of first refusal" is a legal term of art.

Is this how Clark meant to use the term? I don't know. The term is more commonly used in business contracts than in matters of international diplomacy. I've never heard the phrase "right of first refusal" used in matters of diplomacy -- though the concept is a familiar one in international relations. Interestingly, these kind of agreements -- usually referred to as ententes -- are considered less binding than what NATO is -- a collective security treaty.

But it's certainly possible Clark meant it in that way -- in which case I retract my previous critique, since he's not saying that Europe would have a veto over U.S. foreign policy, but rather that there should be greater consultation between the United States and its European allies, which is somewhat less controversial.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Eugene Volokh is also perplexed by Clark's phrasing.

FINAL UPDATE: Here's evidence that Clark can be clear about what he's saying in other televized venues.

posted by Dan on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM


All of this takes his utterances as literal, though. Does anyone believe such an imaginary tea party would ever hold up to reality once confronted? Of course not, it's not intended to. This is just dumbass-speak (the language of the people) for "multilateralism".

posted by: bubba on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]

Mark A. R. Kleiman points out that the phrase "right of first refusal" has nothing to do with asking permission. I'm biased, but I think that Mark makes a good point. (You may know this, but Sullivan doesn't seem to, and many readers may be confused on this issue.)

posted by: Ted Barlow on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]

Karl Rove must be ecstatic over this latest Christmas present. Why do some Democrats seemly want to make his job so much easier? Wesley Clark is not merely speaking for himself---but also for the Democrat Party’s left wing, if not even its mainstream! These folks find nothing at all shocking in the retired general’s utterances. They either subconsciously, or even consciously believe that the Old Europeans represent civilization at its highest. We Americans should therefore be humble and take direction from Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin. Anne Coulter is guilty of exaggerated rhetoric and overkill. Still, she has at least half a point in calling such people traitors. They really do in their heart of hearts believe that America is inferior to the Old Europeans.

“First, on security matters, there is no Europe.”

Yes, but there is unofficially an Old Europe. And these countries are inclined toward pacifism, socialism, and insulting the United States. We should diplomatically deal with such immature people by throwing them a few carrots---and then hitting them upside the head with a big stick when they misbehave.

posted by: David Thomson on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]

“Mark A. R. Kleiman points out that the phrase "right of first refusal" has nothing to do with asking permission. I'm biased, but I think that Mark makes a good point.”

Baloney. After all, this is exactly what President George W. Bush initially did before ordering our troops to invade Iraq. Are you suggesting that Wesley Clark agrees with the President? I don’t think so.

posted by: David Thomson on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]

Mark A. R. Kleiman is correct to point out that the phrase "right of first refusal" has nothing to do with asking permission."

In the context of U.S. military action, all that such a policy would require is that the U.S. inform "Europe" first of its intention to act, and ask "Europe" to join the effort. Should Europe refuse, then the U.S. is perfectly free to act on its own or solicit assistance from others as the U.S. sees fit.

This is what Bush did. So, either Clark is stating that he would have done exactly what Bush did, or Wes "Rhodes scholar" Clark doesn't understand the concept of "right of first refusal."

While Andrew Sullivan missed this point, his post is an accurate response to what appears to be Clark's own misuse of the term.

posted by: Thom on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]

“While Andrew Sullivan missed this point, his post is an accurate response to what appears to be Clark's own misuse of the term.”

Wesley Clark is logically incoherent. Is he some sort of mental retard? No, he even graduated number one in his 1966 West Point class. The problem is that Clark is trying to talk out of both sides of his mouth. He desires recognition and to put together a more impressive resume. Unfortunately for him, the Republicans are already committed to the incumbent President. Thus, Clark’s only other realistic option is to run as a Democrat. And today the power base of this political party tends towards its left of center buffoons and stark raving lunatics. They demand that the retired general sings the same tune---and Clark is only too willing to oblige.

posted by: David Thomson on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]

"Right of first refusal" is a nonsense phrase in this context. What is being offered that they could refuse? Why should we go to the Europeans first (as opposed to the UN Security Council or any other *pertinent* security entity with which the US works)? Since there is no European security organization, which Europeans?

As someone pointed out above, if right of refusal means consultation, that is exactly what happened with the Iraq situation. We asked, some of them refused. The important consideration is what to do next. If Clark is truly offering an alternative to Bush, he could only mean that the refusal would work as a veto, and Sullivan would be right.

And it's still a nonsensical phrase in this context. There is not a finite good that can only be given to one party.

posted by: Norman on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]

Forget transatlantic. I'm looking for a presidential candidate who is thinking transpacific. The future already moved there over a decade ago. Can you imagine what the combined economies of Japan, China, Taiwan and South Korea are compared to Europe now, even with the relative decline of Japan? I remember in the eighties (Bubble Years) the head of Japan's MIDI had this to say about the rest of the world: "In the future, the United States will be our farm and Europe our boutique." Well, he was right about Europe.

posted by: Roger L. Simon on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]

Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I would not be shocked to find out that Clark said "right of first refusal" knowing full well that the "contract law" meaning of the term means "consultation" and the "rhetorical" impact of the words is "no unilateral actions."

I disagree with our proprietor here. I would not let Clark off the hook here. After all, we know that the man committed matrimony at least once, and was a serial matriculator, at least until he enrolled at Oxford.

posted by: appalled moderate on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]

"Right of first refusal" has only one meaning in this context -- one that would be familiar to anyone who, like Clark, has lived in a world where legal obligations and contracts get discussed -- "consultation."

Your observation that "right of first refusal" is an odd term to use when talking about diplomacy is fair. But your assumption that Clark was offering "Europe" a veto power over U.S. foreign policy was not. OF COURSE he wasn't offering Europe a veto.

You owe Clark an official retraction and an apology.

posted by: Charlie Robb on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]

Doesnt Clark owe Bush an apology for offering the identical strategy that Bush used as his own plan, while slamming Bush for using it?

posted by: Mark Buehner on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]

Norman and Thom are correct. Clark's phrase is nonsensical in the context in which he uses it, and Kleiman's apologia for Clark's stupidity belies his own refusal to "squarely face[] the facts" (Kleiman's words).

If we are to analogize a "right of first refusal" to contractual provisions in the context of Iraq, the CORRECT analogy would be that the US would tell Europe that it has a transaction (enforcing the UN resolutions on WMD) that it proposes to engage in. Europe would then have the opportunity to engage in that transaction itself (i.e., it could enforce the resolutions itself) or pass on the transaction. If Europe passed on that transaction, we could engage in it ourselves.

But, of course, such an idea is asinine.

So if Clark didn't have a "right of first refusal" in mind, what WAS he thinking about? I think Sullivan nailed it... Clark was proposing that Europe have the oppotunity to reject our national security measures.

posted by: Al on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]

“You owe Clark an official retraction and an apology.”

Well, I hope that Wesley Clark isn’t waiting for hell to freeze over. I personally have no intention of apologizing to the general. On the contrary, he is obligated to explain himself in a far more explicit manner. Some of us refuse to allow Clark to have his cake and eat it also. His use of the term “right of first refusal” makes absolutely no sense if he is not inclined to hand over the veto power to the Old Europeans. Are you contacting the Clark campaign to obtain further clarity on this issue? The onus is on General Clark to get his act together and cease making confusing statements in public. Have we misunderstood Clark? If so, that’s his problem and not ours.

posted by: David Thomson on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]

Dan is being too kind to Europe when he writes:

Second, even if there was a Europe, its interest in non-European affairs does not rank particularly high. Europe is concerned primarily with the state of Europe -- matters like North Korea generate mild interest but few resources. Why, exactly, should the EU get a veto over U.S. policy in Northeast Asia?

When was the last time "Europe" cleaned up a mess in Europe? Two world wars, genocide in the Balkans, totalitarianism in Eastern Europe for 2 generations-- all problems that "Europe" either ignored or waited for Uncle Sugar to bail them out of. Our leaders defer to Old European sensibilities out of politeness, not because thay have anything substantive to add. They have no military, minimal intelligence, and less inclination to get their hands dirty when there is a problem to be solved, even in their own backyard. Prime exhibit: Kosovo. The Europeans discussed the problem until the dead numbered in the thousands. Uncle Sugar gets involved, the killing stops. I guess that if George Bush had not treated the French so rudely, they would have become involved immediately. Oh, sorry, he wasn't even president yet. They must have known that he would be elected 3 years later!

posted by: jb9054 on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]

Volokh has an entry on this. Not to toot my own horn too loudly, but he largely agrees with me.

posted by: Norman on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]

FYI, Prof. Volokh agrees that Clark's use of the term "right of first refusal" was nonsensical. He sums up his post as follows:

"My tentative sense is that Clark had heard of this cool-sounding legal phrase, and used it for its connotation of cooperation and business amity, without thinking that much about exactly what it would mean. This was on a TV program, after all, and people often talk especially imprecisely in such venues. So I can't really figure out exactly what Clark meant, or whether I should be outraged or not."

posted by: Al on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]

Beat me by a minute, Norman!

posted by: Al on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]


That's because you quoted some text. Extra work will slow you down. :-)

posted by: Norman on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]

I agree with Volokh. The only way in which the legal term would make sense in this context is:

"We're going to take 'em out. You can do it first if you wanna."

I doubt Clark had such a meaning in mind. More likely it was BOMFOG as defined in the Political Dictionary, derived from an old Nelson Rockefeller generic speech, "... brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of god."

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]

in modest defense of "Europe":

1. European troops are on the ground in Afghanistan, in Macedonia, in Kosovo, and in Iraq. In the first three of those places, they are there in lieu of U.S. troops who are working to stabilize the situation in Iraq. European troops have also gone to places (DRC, Liberia, Ivory Coast) where we have not been especially interested to go; incidentally, in sending troops to some of these places, European countries may well be making things better for the U.S. when it finally gets off its butt and takes a serious interest in West Africa, which it is in the process of doing.

2. Literalism here isn't an especially useful interpretive technique, especially since Clark -- as ex-SACEUR and presider over the Kosovo campaign -- knows better than the author of this blog or any of us commenters that there is in fact no such thing as Europe. By contrast, "right of first refusal" is exactly a legal term, and there is no rational reason to think that Clark said it without meaning exactly what it means. People use "Europe" all the time to mean various collections of European states, but nobody uses "right of first refusal" colloquially, at least not that I know of.

3. The flailing about on integration has an equal chance of jump-starting some defense cooperation among some European states as it does of delaying the whole endeavor. Multiple possibilities from the Brussels debacle.

4. Giving European countries a voice in how we make our national security decisions is...say it with me now...not a bad thing. We did it for fifty years in the Cold War, and that turned out reasonably well. The process of having to organize your thoughts in a persuasive enough matter to convince your allies that you are right about something is a fundamental part of politics, and it helps the arguer understand where the weak and the strong points of his/her argument are. Any graduate student can tell you that much.

Besides, international terror is an international problem -- ask Turkey, or Morocco, or Saudia Arabia. Is there some special reason why they shouldn't get to speak up on a topic that affects their national security just as much?

Of course, "a voice, not a veto" isn't going to win Clark any votes, so he has to try to think up some other clever way to get scared Americans to comprehend that international cooperation is good, and that just because France and Germany didn't agree with us on Iraq doesn't mean they're no longer our friends. In a time dominated by fear and anger, I say good luck to him, but I don't hold out a lot of hope for his candidacy.

posted by: Mark S. on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]

Whatever he meant, Clark has a bad tendency to babble in... SACEURese. Or some incomprehensible dialect that's easy to misconstrue.

That's a shame. There are plenty of poison pens that will be more than happy to misconstrue him.

posted by: rps on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]

To me, Clark's statement makes no sense. The first sentence ("we’ll consult with you first") has no bearing on the second sentence ("You get the right of first refusal on the security concerns that we have.") The former denotes action on our part and the latter describes the actions of the Europeans.

Here's how I interpret the concept of right of first refusal on an international scale: The US and Europe have an existing security agreement or policy. A situation then arises that threatens US security. That is, we are facing 'security concerns', so we decide a course of action. Under the Clark Doctrine, The US will first consult with the Europeans. That part is OK and certainly not ground breaking.

Now, under the right of first refusal clause, Europe has two options. One, it can stand pat and let the US proceed on its course without complaint. Or two, Europe exercises its right of first refusal and the US course of action is stopped in its tracks. That's my understanding of how the concept works.

Clark is being an idiot, he's misspeaking, he's pandering to the crowd or some combination of the three.

posted by: Bird Dog on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]

Nicely done Mark S.

posted by: Waffle on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]

Quick Question:

Would the United States have been better off or worse off if we had followed the European (which obviously means UK France Germany) agenda for the Middle East (solve the Palestinian problem) in the last two years rather than the regime pursued by our own laughably incompetent foreign policy team?

posted by: Badger on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]

Yeah sure, Badger.

Could you expound on the miracle European plan to solve the Palestinian problem. This reminds me of the joke: Here's how to become a millionaire, first, get a million dollars...

posted by: Thom on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]

Still looking for that European agenda...nope, can't find it. Must be locked away somewhere in Brussels.

posted by: Bird Dog on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]

a. There is no "Europe" with whom to consult. The EU was dead on arrival. Old Europe is idolized by the American leftwing nutcase intellectual community because they hate America just as much as Old Europe does and so it is a meeting of the minds. Both are anachronisms and irrelevant in today's world.

b. New Europe is optimistic, knows what tyranny means and is with us all the way.

c. I think it was Colin Powell who said going to war with the French and by extension the rest of Old Europe, is like going hunting with an accordion. No help, but a big hindrance.

d. President Bush and his administration is doing a Herculean job with great success and modesty. Anyone who thinks one of the declared Democrat candidates or the stealth candidate lurking in the shadows can do a better job is very mistaken. I hope voters think very hard before voting against a proven winner and for return to the policies of the Clintonistas who allowed terrorists to become so well organized and financed and put the world in the dangerous position it is today.

posted by: erp on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]

In a broad sense, the General means he would consult with the Europeans regarding foreign policy. Not all that complicated. Taking one phrase and parsing it to death is sophistry.

Remember when President Bush said in a debate with Al Gore, "insurance . . . that's a Washington word."? Total nonsense. Anyone who is quoted constantly makes silly statements sometimes, and the General did just that.

Still, she [Coulter] has at least half a point in calling such people traitors. See, people constantly say dumb things.

posted by: Pug on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]

"Right of first refusal" is a legal term meaning nothing more than a third party is given a chance to match my deal terms. If he doesn't match my terms, I can do the deal on those terms without interference from such third party. Typically used in shareholder agreements.

This tempest redefines political silliness.

posted by: pushcut on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]


No one is parsing Clark's statement to death, we are simply trying to understand the foreign policy position of the man who wants to be President of the United States during a time of war. There are only two ways to read Clark's statement.

The first, which is how Andrew Sullivan and others understood it, is that Clark would give "Europe" a veto over critical U.S. foreign policy decisions and proposed military action. If this interpretation is correct, then Clark is unfit to be President.

The second, which you suggest, is that Clark was only saying that he would consult with "Europe" on these matters. If this is, in fact, what Clark meant, then we might as well leave Bush in office because that is exactly what Bush did. No one can seriously contend that Bush didn't consult with European "allies", the complaint boils down to the fact that Bush went ahead anyway over the objections of France and Germany.

The other alternative is that Clark is deliberately trying to have it both ways, by using language to suggest a major change in policy but leaving himself room to explain away subsequent objections to that policy as a mere misunderstanding, then he should be called out on that.

posted by: Thom on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]

Frankly, Clark is starting to strike me as someone who has a shallow pool of thought in the area he claims the most expertise. So, Thom, I find myself split between either your last explanation or the idea that Clark doesn't have a clue what he meant.

posted by: Robin Roberts on 12.22.03 at 11:10 AM [permalink]

Post a Comment:


Email Address:



Remember your info?