Big Think Interview With Wesley Clark
Wesley Clark: Wes Clark, I’m a retired Army Officer, businessman, I teach a little bit, and I’m on TV sometimes.
Question: What is your biggest concern about the future of Iraq?
Wesley Clark: Well, the biggest concern for the future of Iraq really is about the Iraqi people themselves. We don’t really know where this is going, it’s more diplomatic now than it has been in the past. It’s always been a lot about diplomacy in the region, and one of my original criticisms of the Bush Administration was they really never talked to Iraq’s neighbors, they thought they’d go in there and use force and, and solve just by the use of force—pretty naive view at the top level. The military always knew better. And they never had a regional strategy.
We’re trying to put together a regional strategy over there right now. We’ve pulled the troops out, I think that’s appropriate. The terrorists are still there in some reduced numbers. And obviously they’ll be there for a long time and the Iraqi public security forces and their anti-terrorism, counter-terrorism forces are going to be busy for a long time in Iraq. We’re going to be helping them and we’ll have some troops over there and some people may get hurt. But most of the military stuff is over, at least with the current dynamics in the region.
I think that what’s happened is, politically, that there was a... at first blush, the Iranians made some significant inroads, especially in eastern and southern Iraq around Basra. And then the nationalities and ethnic differences reasserted themselves. They maybe Shia, but they’re Persian, they’re not Arab Shia. There was a difference; people resented the Iranians coming in. The government has paid a lot of attention to Tehran, but it doesn’t want to be a province of Iran; it wants an independent country. So it’s also looking to Saudi Arabia and the Sunni powers, and to the United States. I think we’ll have a significant diplomatic role there for a long time. And somehow we’ve got to make all of that come together in a way that helps the Iraqi people heal the wounds of the civil conflict, the murders that went on, a lot of accidental deaths. A lot of people who left the country are gonna have to decide whether they come back or not. Laws are going to have to be put in place, there’s the whole struggle over the hydrocarbon resources. But it’s also about everything else that always is present in a political situation. Who has power? Who gets the money? What’s the tax rate? Where’s the highway built? Is the railroad refurbished? Who gets the pipeline? What company gets to build it? All of that stuff is in play. Iraq has tremendous natural resources; it’s in a pivotal geographic position. It’s got a fighting chance to make it.
Question: In what ways can Iraq be considered a victory?
Wesley Clark: Well, obviously in technical military terms, the fact that we went into Iraq in 2003 with sufficient force to defeat the Iraqi Army, that’s a victory. That’s a military victory. What happened afterwards is not really military. It’s a political/military/diplomatic struggle in the region for dominance in Iraq. And the truth is that, although I was against the war, once you get America committed, like everybody else, I want to see us succeed.
Now, the ending could have been a lot worse and it could still be a lot worse. We could have left and Iraq could have ended up like Somalia is today—with no government, no institutions at all, and warring factions and another two or three million Iraqis fleeing or dying or whatever. That didn’t happen. It could have been that we would have left and the Iranians would have staged some kind of excuse to march in and subjugate most of Iraq. And we could have had a broader war. That hasn’t happened.
Now both of those two outcomes are still conceptually... they’re possible. But I think we’ve avoided the worst. We’ve paid a heck of a price for it. And people will argue for a long time was this a smart thing to have done? And if it was a smart thing, was it still worth doing; and how could we have done it better? There’ll be a lot of questions about this. But we’ve averted the worst outcome. I think anybody who would – from the military who you would talk to would tell you the troops did a great job. They did what they were asked to do. We didn’t have enough troops, didn’t always have the right leadership at the beginning in terms of structure. General Sanchez, for example, never had the staff he needed to really help him do the job. There was some mistakes early on in policies, like getting rid of the Iraqi armed forces. But by and large, we suffered through it, we’ve taken our knocks over there and we’ve got a fighting chance to make this work. Anybody who calls it a victory is way out of line right now in the larger sense. This is not a World War II victory.
Question: Why is the future of Pakistan so closely tied to our success or failure in Afghanistan?
Wesley Clark: Well, Afghanistan is really a theater for proxy war between India and Pakistan. And these two major states; India with well over a billion people, Pakistan with 175 million people, they’ve been at odds really since a million people died, or so, in the process of India securing its independence and the Pakistani state was created. They fought again, and again, and again. There was an East Pakistan which is now Bangladesh. Lots of people have died in the process. And Pakistan, more so than India, because a warrior state.
In the 1950’s, Pakistan allied with the United States in something called the Central Treaty Organization, we were lined up with, at that time, Iran, ruled by the Shah, and Pakistan and Turkey as a southward shield against Soviet expansion toward the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. It was part of the containment strategy.
India, of course, looking at Pakistan being with the United States, India then said, “Well, where can I get military assistance?” And they went to the Russians. So the Indian Armed Forces became more dependent at that time, they were freed of their colonial entanglements with Britain and they became more dependent on the Soviets. And so in the 1970s, under Richard Nixon, we had a famous tilt toward Pakistan. All of that is just to say that those issues have never been resolved. There was active fighting on a glacier at 21,000 feet, still is. Troops fight each other up there, they freeze to death, artillery goes back and forth, a few people die every year. It’s never totally been resolved between India and Pakistan.
China invaded India and there was a war between India and China in some of the disputed terrain in 1962 and India got hurt by that. Pakistan, of course, had alliances, or informal alliances with China. So there’s a whole lot of still-unresolved issues, the most important of which, I guess would be Kashmir, which has a number of Muslims. Pakistan would like to have that province; it actually was claimed by India. There’s a dispute on how that’s going to be resolved. All of that is in a sort of tense standoff. And the standoff has spilled over into Afghanistan.
Pakistanis believe that Afghanistan is their, “strategic depth,” against India, and India says, “Well if the Pakistanis get that strategic depth there will be even more intractable in dealing with issues like Kashmir and other issues that affect India." And so the largest Indian embassy in the world, I’m told, is in Kabul. Afghanistan is a country that apparently, according to the reports that I’ve received, has 13 Indian consulates. And where did Hamid Karzai live when he wasn’t in Afghanistan? It wasn’t in Pakistan, it was in India. And so you can see the basic outlines of a conflict.
And so from the Pakistani perspective, they were betrayed by the United States by something called a Pressler Amendment in 1990. They were developing a nuclear weapon, we knew about it, they were developing it for defensive purposes, they say, against India, which was developing it for its own reasons, its own nuclear weapons. We cut off our military assistance to Pakistan. We hadn't been giving military assistance to India.
So we cut off military assistance, broke the ties. Prior to that, in the 1980’s, we had a very good military-to-military relationship dating back into the ‘50s, with the Pakistani military. And we’d done the work together to fight the... used the Mujahideen to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. All that ended with the so-called "Pressler Amendment." Americans don’t even remember this Amendment, but it’s a huge deal in the minds of the Pakistanis. It’s a sign that even if Washington is your friend today, they could be against you tomorrow.
Then the Indians took off economically, we have a lot of Indian-Americans in the United States, we are very proud of their work, they’re wonderful technologists. At one point we were getting like 90% of the graduates of the Indian Institute of Technology to the United States. Now only 50% come, and it’s one of the premiere technical schools in the world.
So it’s easy to understand how the Pakistanis would look at this and say, "Oh, those Americans, you know, they’re going to betray us again. And so we better, we better really be careful with this." Well, they way they’re being careful with it is, they have the Taliban. The Taliban are there, hosted on... it’s a carryover really from the struggle against the Soviets, but they’re hosted in the frontier provinces along the Afghanistan border and they are either deliberately or inadvertently the arm and the reach into Afghanistan to enforce Pakistan’s efforts to secure its strategic base.
And so on the other side of it, India has a big interest then in working against the Taliban. Well, so we’re caught in the middle of this, we armed the Taliban in the 1980’s, we know many of the people, of the top leaders or the young people who were associated with the top leaders from those days, and now we are against them. And, in one way or another, most of them have continued to fight us.
So we’re caught in this. And, just like Iraq, it’s not purely a military struggle. In fact, you could argue that this is even less of a military struggle than the struggle in Iraq was. No matter what we’re doing, we call it counter-insurgency; we’re really going after the Al Qaeda terrorists who were also embedded in the Northwestern frontier provinces in Pakistan. And the concern is that somewhere in side Pakistan, there is some really smart, wily, sly, Pakistani intelligence group that says, “You know, these Americans, if they ever get Osama Bin Laden they won't need to work with Pakistan any more. They won’t give us billions of dollars a year to fix our madrasas and to rearm the Pakistani military. Instead, they’ll go to India and work with India because Americans like India, and India’s a big democracy. You know, we’re Pakistanis, we’re not as well-respected in the United States, people don’t know us."
And they have this sense about America. I don’t know if they’re right or wrong about it, but I do know they have that sense. And it’s one of the issues in the relationship. So, we’re working very hard with the Pakistani government, we’re trying to work with their armed forces, we’re trying to convince them it’s in their interest to completely shut down the Taliban, build an independent state that’s a non-warrior state in Afghanistan, and end the struggle that way. I’m not sure that we’ve succeeded in changing their mindset at the deepest levels, and so the struggle continues.
Question: Is China leading an effort to build a nuclear submarine fleet to rival that of the United States?
Wesley Clark: We don’t know exactly what the aim of the Chinese shipbuilding program is, but they are building a Navy. And they do have commerce and it’s a very natural thing.
China is now a major economic power. I was in China several years ago, I talked to a young man who is a private citizen in China, but he’s very close to the Chinese leadership. He was the head of their youth movement for several years, and so he would occasionally sit in on top meetings and so forth. And he put it this way to me. He says: “China... For 200 years, China was attacked and exploited and dismembered by its neighbors.” He says: “I don’t mean the United States, I mean the neighboring countries.” He says: “Now China is a great power. This will never happen again.” And he meant it. And he’s obviously speaking the way with some voice of authority in this matter, and it’s the way the Chinese see the world.
They see China as the middle of humanity, the middle kingdom. It’s the... and if you go back historically, it really is. It’s where the bulk of humanity has been. It was the origin for most of the inventions of mankind from everything from the lode stone to gunpowder to paper to bureaucracy to promotion by examination proved by merit, proved by examination. All of that came from thousands of years of Chinese civilization.
And for 200 or 300 years, they lost their lead. Jared Diamond’s, book, "Guns, Germs and Steel" is—which many of you have probably have read—is one attempt to account for, why was these relative barbarians in the West suddenly take over the world? And from the Chinese perspective, civilization is starting to look more normal again. They’re putting their economic team together; they’ve got a huge middle class. They’re middle class now in China is larger than the population of the United States of America. They’ve got over 300 million people in their middle class. They’ve got another 950 million people who want to be in the middle class, at least and who are struggling to have jobs and education and come to the cities and China’s leaders are working with this and trying to make something happen. They are very heavily focused domestically.
But to feed that economic expansion they need energy and they need resources that China doesn’t have. Some of that energy and some of those resources will come from their Asian neighbors, overland. They’re working with Kazakhstan, a lot of Chinese are living over the border in the former Soviet Far East, and people in the region say, “I wonder how long Russia’s gonna hang on to its eastern provinces because the Chinese keep coming in?” But a lot of those resources have to be brought in by sea, so it’s a very natural thing that China would want to expand its naval power.
Why? Well look, there’s pirates off the coast of Africa, for goodness sake. There have always been pirates in the Straits of Malacca, around Thailand and Singapore and Malaysia, in that area. And that’s the main shipping channel. And every day super-tankers pass through that area worth tens of millions of dollars, and they’re vulnerable. So the United States Navy, really as the British Navy pulled back in the mid-20th century, and after World War II, the United States Navy took up the role of... We were the guarantors of the sea lanes. And we occupied the western Pacific after World War II. We have our base structure that was completely set up. In fact, we, you know, wanted to be in China with the defeat of the nationalist Chinese, then we moved offshore and we supported Taiwan which was called China for a long, long time. And we still have our troops in Korea, we have bases in Japan, we’re in Okinawa, we’re in Guam and we have at least one aircraft carrier, sometimes two or more that are in the Western Pacific. Those aircraft carriers can strike hundreds of miles away, they’re accompanied by defensive submarines. We probably have missile submarines, but we never know about that, and where they are.
And so, if you were China, you would say, "Why would these aircraft carriers be coming, you know, 100, 200 miles off the coast of China. Why does the United States need to do this? Why can’t we take care of ourselves?" And if you put the shoe on the other foot and you look at this as an American, you say, "What if the Chinese said to the United States, 'We’re worried about your border with Mexico. You seem to be really uncomfortable with Mexico and you seem to be talking to their government and sometimes in nice ways and sometimes in tough ways, there’s some violence along your border. Would it help if we Chinese put a couple of aircraft carriers off the coast of San Diego just to show the world that we, China, are very interested in the peaceful resolution of these border issues between the United States and Mexico.'" And of course America would be offended. We’d be outraged. We’d say, "Oh no, no. You can’t do this we don’t want to see…" you know, it would be like; it would be like a red flag in our face. We wouldn’t like it.
And yet, we’ve done this for years to China. So some of the pushback is to be expected. And on the other hand, when you look at it, you can’t quite get a clear understanding of what China’s goals are. It’s clear there’s some pushing and shoving going on in the South China Sea associated with the Spratly Islands around the Philippines, a lot of different nations claim sections of this because there’s a lot of oil down there. And there’s still some of these territorial issues that result in some problems.
China and Japan recently had a naval incident. There’s a naval incident between North and South Korea where a South Korean ship was torpedoed and we’re asking China to do something and it’s not clear what China’s view on this is, but they don’t seem to want to condemn North Korea exactly the way we want to condemn North Korea. So different nations have different perspectives.
And so as we look at the China shipbuilding program, and we look at the other aspects of Chinese technology; they bought a lot of Soviet equipment, Russian equipment, early on, they copied it, they probably enhanced it. They certainly got high-tech capabilities; they’re proving that every day in the economy. It’s natural that there be some concern about where China’s military power is going.
And in the military business we always used to say, “It’s really more about capabilities than it is about intent.” You have to look at capabilities because intent can change with the incumbencies of leaders or suddenly overnight with different events, whereas capabilities don’t change so fast. So you look at the emergence of these capabilities and you say, “Hmm, what does this mean? What could this mean to us?”
So, clearly we’re watching the emergence of increased military capabilities in China and we’re asking, "What does this mean?"
Question: Why are Democrats viewed as weak on defense and somehow lacking in patriotism?
Wesley Clark: You know, I was a soldier in Vietnam. I was an Infantry Company Commander. I came back, I was wounded; came home on a stretcher in 1970. And I did another couple of Army jobs and ended up teaching at West Point and I would read in the New York Times every day from my perch 50 miles above New York City on the Hudson. I was kind of shocked at the anti-military attitudes that were present in the country.
I remember in the spring of 1971, a hundred thousand people converged on the Pentagon in June of 1971. They threw blood; I guess it was goat’s blood or something, on the steps to the Pentagon. People were being accused of being murderers and baby killers. You just can’t imagine the civic outrage. Now most of these people were not wearing suits and ties, most of these people showed some evidence of being associated with the more free-thinking elements of society. You could call them counter-culture, and you would say these people were also probably voting Democratic. That is to say, they didn’t like their parents’ authority, they didn’t like government's authority, and they didn’t like the university’s authority. They were more free thinking because the authority meant, in the minds of many people of this generation, "We’re gonna get drafted. We’re gonna go into the military and we’re not gonna make it out of Vietnam."
Some people went to Canada, a lot of people protested. It’s also, of course, a great way to meet girls, and so if you were a young guy and you were looking to have a good time, there's nothing like a good street demonstration to do this—especially in the United States because it’s not too dangerous and people are really nice and they get along really well.
But that was the early 70’s, and this attitude was, of course, picked up by members of Congress because people run for office. I remember when Senator Kennedy led the fight against the supersonic transport. We were actually gonna take the B-58 Bomber and just like the Europeans did when they built the Concord, we were going to have our own supersonic transport, and it would have been civil aircraft, but we were putting a lot of money in it. At the time, it was, the, you know, the people against the technology and Senator Kennedy represented that. And this technology was part of the military industrial complex, it was spin-off. It would have put us in a really world-leading position on aviation technology, even more so that we already were in, but you know, enough was enough.
And so we decided to put out national priorities in other directions. And the Democrats kind of became the party of this voice. When it was discovered that there was a secret bombing campaign in Laos in 1972, Richard Nixon was the President, he was a Republican. And it was natural that at the same time that Nixon had done the Watergate break-in, and Democrats in particular were outraged against the President’s conduct, here he was doing a secret bombing campaign against the wishes and intent of Congress. And so they became outspoken on this.
The war ended the next year, in 1973. Our prisoners came home and Nixon resigned, and Vietnam became an item of history. But the legacy of Vietnam was that it was the Republicans who were doing the fighting and it was the Democrats who were doing the objecting. And the objecting was not only to the policy, it was also to the people who wore the uniform. Now, I know, maybe Democrats don’t want to hear that today, but that’s the way it was. And I was one of those young people who was told, you know, you didn’t have to wear your uniform, you know, in Washington D.C. too much because people didn’t welcome it. Today, if you wear a uniform and you’re on an airplane, the flight attendant may say, let’s give a big round of applause to our men and women who are fighting in Iraq. That was unheard of in the 1960’s. And we had thousands of soldiers who came out of that war with PTSD exactly like the PTSD that people have today coming out of Iraq, but we didn’t even know what to call it then. We thought they were like druggies, or hippies, or maladjustment problems. They got washed out of the military, in reality, there were a lot of emotionally damaged and sometimes physically impaired young men who had served their country, tried to serve it well and under some difficult circumstances, and without all the support mechanisms that are in place today.
But we didn’t understand all of that then. And so, what happened was, the Democratic party, it had a sort of residue of... and then when President Carter was elected in 1976, the idea was to get rid of dishonesty and the criminality of government that had emerged with the Watergate case. And unfortunately what happened was that we had the fall of the Shah of Iran, we had the Americans taken hostage in the American Embassy. And this... we tried to mount a military rescue and the military rescue was a fiasco. Some people claimed it was a weak military blamed on the administration, and President Carter was defeated for re-election. Ronald Reagan came in and he became the voice of a strong, rearmed "morning in America." And this sort of became the image set in stone. So Democrats got tagged with not being strong on national security.
And today in the Democratic Party, actually if you go and look at the people who were elected into office, you say, “How many of you all served in the military?" There’s probably more Democrats who served in the military and are veterans than there are Republicans. And certainly that’s true amongst the youngsters. But if you go to the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion Halls and you ask people, “What do you think about those political parties?” These World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War veterans, they’ll tell it to you straight. They don’t have anything against Roosevelt and Truman, but in the 1970s and '80s, the Democrats, they didn’t believe in a strong America, they wanted to make us weak. It may not be true, but it’s the mythology that’s out there in the political view and it’s been aided, promoted, and taken as a theme by the Republican Party.
They want you to believe that they’re stronger on national defense. That’s the reason I wore the American flag lapel pins. And, whether they’ve served in the military or not, they’re the first ones to want to throw our military into a problem because it’s tough, it’s strong, and you know, they’re the "papa party," the Democrats are the "mama party." The Democrats are for victims, they’re for the little guy, they’re—they’re oh so compassionate, everything’s so nice… but the Republicans, they’re big and they’re tough and they’re mean and they’re... “Boy, we’re gonna get after you if you try to threaten us.” And that’s the characterization of the parties. And it’s out there as a sort of mythology that underlies all of the day-to-day happenings of the American political system.
Question: How will politicians stay relevant in a country that can clearly be crippled by a few businessmen and a world that can clearly been revolutionized by something like Google?
Wesley Clark: Now if you go back into American history you’ll find lots of periods like this. Maybe not exactly the same technology, maybe there was not Sergey Brin... but it was somebody who did something and somehow something changed. The telegraph, transcontinental railroads, the rise of the railroads, the rise of electric power, automobiles. America has always been a dynamic, rapidly changing society.
From the present, when you look to the past, I feel like I’m in mid-life right now at least, and so I’ve got the advantage of looking back. I was at West Point not too long ago and when I was standing there looking at where I had taken the Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America as a 17-year-old cadet. I thought, “My goodness, that’s 48 years ago.” I can look back over five decades of adulthood in America, reading the newspapers, being part of the political dialogue, worried about what happened to the country. And I can tell you that this is not a unique period.
Every period had times where the politicians have had to learn to reconnect. Sometimes it’s more about the width of your tie and the length of your sideburns, like the late-1970s when we wore big flowery, paisley shirts. Sometimes it more about, "Hey, can you Blackberry, do you Twit? And hey, are you on Facebook? And can I be your friend?" But politicians have always had to adapt. And that’s the American system.
The American system is representative democracy. It’s always been about life, liberty, you want to say "the pursuit of happiness," but it really isn’t. It’s life, liberty, and in the words of John Locke, "the protection of property"—private property. That’s what government is about, that’s been the engine of economic growth. Property rights. Because the fruit of human labors can be retained it provides the incentive to invest, to invent, to grow, and develop. And the political system has to capture that.
So, how do you maintain your relevance? You know the technology, you meet the people, you solicit their ideas, you listen. If you can, you try to help educate. It’s always a balance, I think for political leaders. How much listening they do, how much reflecting of people’s popular attitudes, and then how much can they educate and transform the population through the means of communication.
Abraham Lincoln did it in incredible speeches. And they didn’t go out on Twitter and he didn’t have instantaneous following. The people read those speeches in newspapers across the country; sometimes two days, sometimes two weeks later. And they informed and transformed public opinion and shaped America. Today, it happens much more quickly. But hopefully we can convey not only the emotions that come through in live action television, but also the underlying dialogue.
I was recently at a high-level gathering and people were really concerned about the state of political dialogue in America. And I am too. I see a lot of passion on television; it seems to soar up ratings. "Hey, let’s tell them off. You know those elites..." and all that. Of course the people who are speaking are kind of elite. When you’re elected to run for the Senate, you’re pretty elite yourself, whether you think you are or not, compared to the rest of the people. But people seem to like the passion. But can they get the ideas across? And with each generation, there’s been a different challenge to the American democracy’s coped with, there’s no guarantee that we’ll successfully cope with this one, but I bet we will. I’ll bet politicians will connect. I’ll bet you people will emerge that can deal with the passions and convey the facts and ideas that are necessary for an informed public debate and the public support in the direction for our country.
Question: Is America’s obesity problem affecting the military?
Wesley Clark: There's height and weight standards in the Armed forces for the last 25 years. And we’re very strict about them and every year people are... some people are forced out because they don’t make it and some people can’t enlist because they don’t make it. I think America has an obesity problem. And it’s reflected many ways. There’s too much indoor activity. People are afraid to let the kids out on the street. Schools don’t have physical education every day. We all had it as kids, every single day in junior high school. And before that you had multiple recesses in elementary school where you were pushed out of the classroom and forced to go down and basically either get in fights, play on the jungle gym, or play football or basketball or softball in the appropriate season. That’s the way Americans in my generation grew up. Today, it’s not happening. And so, it’s not the Armed Forces, it’s the society and the Armed Forces are just the beneficiary of what we, as Americans are.
Question: Is the military ready to accept gays into its ranks?
Wesley Clark: Well, in my personal experience, yes. The people I’ve talked to: "Yes." But if you throw out a hot potato issue and you say, “Hey, can you take both sides of this issue?” Some people line up on one side, some people line up on the other and then if you ask the military to volunteer to do this; no they’re not going to volunteer to do this.
The military was racially integrated by President Harry Truman. He did not have a one-year-long process to go through and then poll people and say, “Would you like to serve with people of another color in your unit?” He didn’t do that. He just did it. And what’s happened here is we’ve sort of raised back concerns and fears and issues that I think in American society has been put to rest. So I’m very disappointed in the Senate vote the other day and I hope that we’ll get that changed.
Question: Was your intelligence ever a source of other people’s resentment?
Wesley Clark: You know what Benjamin Franklin said? He said, “Most people think mostly about themselves.” And so when you get into any competitive situation, most people are mostly thinking about themselves. And the military is a hierarchical structured organization. It’s got an up-route policy, it’s no different from most businesses, except that when you’re out of it, you can’t get back in it and you can’t come in through lateral entry.
So maybe the internal dynamics are a little bit different. But everybody has to be aware of how they affect other people. You have to build friendships, you have to build relationships, you have to have partnerships and you have to have people that believe in you and support you. They could be your superiors, they can be your teammates, they can be the people that work for you. But you must have these relationships. You can’t go through life as a loner and be effective.
Question: What are your “three goals” in civilian life?
Wesley Clark: Let’s see, I was gonna make a certain amount of money, I was gonna teach, and I was gonna become a golf pro.
You have to have goals. Now you may change those goals as you go along, but it’s important to have... the reason I end up like that is when I first got out of the military a very nice former military officer who retired a little bit before me said—he brought together a lawyer and a minister and himself and he says, “We’re your transition committee, we’re gonna help you get out of the military the right way.” I said, “Oh, that’s great.” I said so, he said, “What do you thinking about how much money do you need?” And I said, “I don’t know, I don’t know.” He said, “Well, do you own a home?” I said, “Yeah.” He says, “Is it paid for?” I said, “Mostly.” He said, “Do you have kids in college?” “No, they’re already graduated.” “So, what are your needs?” I said, “I don’t know, but what am I worth? What can I do?” And they said, “Well, we don’t know.” I said, “Okay. I don’t’ know what I need, you don’t know what I can do or what I’m worth. I mean, why are we having this conversation? How can you help me?”
And I began to formulate these questions in my own mind and I started to think through, "Okay, let’s try to set up to be financially independent so you can have resources to help other people," because I had seen what George Soros has done. Obviously, you know, it took him his whole life to learn the skills and he’s a unique person. I don’t think I could ever do what George has done, but I tremendously admire the impact that he’s made on society in so many ways and so positively, especially in freeing Eastern Europe from Soviet domination. He was the single most powerful force and at one point he was putting $500 million a year of his own earnings into the Open Society Institute and doing wonderful things.
So I saw in the late 1990s or early 2000s, what philanthropy could do. I thought, well I’d love to have enough money to really be able to give it away. And then I thought, I’ve always believed that you have to pass on your life experiences. Hopefully they mean something, not only to your family, but maybe you can offer some other help to people, so I like teaching. And then I think you have to be outdoors and be connected with life and to me, golf is one of those sports that, it’s like life. You get some hard knocks, the breaks don’t always go your way, sometimes the ball will hit a tree root and bounce in the wrong direction, sometimes it comes back onto the fairway. You don’t know, but you have to control yourself, you have to work with others, you have to have a good disposition, you have to learn from your mistakes. It’s a wonderful way of thinking about life and enjoying others.
And so those were my goals. I think they’re just... you know, they’re there, I still like having those goals and maybe I’ll get them.
Question: How can America return value to its economy?
Wesley Clark: You know, President Eisenhower said, “The real strength of America is not our military/industrial complex and it’s not our armed forces, it’s the economy in America.” And today, you know, we’re struggling again with the economy. We’ve had an unprecedented financial collapse that no one 30 or 40 years ago would have ever anticipated because we thought we had all the controls in place after the Depression of the 1930s to have prevented this. The controls were gradually relaxed. Leverage, excessive leverage took over and suddenly we find ourselves in the longest recession since World War II. And although the recession is technically ended now, job creation typically is a lagging indicator.
Businesses are sitting on the sidelines with trillions of dollars to invest; they’re not doing it. Traditionally, we’ve powered the economy with consumption. Seventy-one percent of the GDP is consumption. And consumers are tapped out and they’re over-leveraged and they’re trying to de-leverage and so this is a tough time in the American economy. It’s a tough time for the administration because they know that until you can overcome the loss of eight million jobs in some way and give people hope for the future, there’s a lot of angry people in America.
The American middle class has most of its assets really tied up in its homes and those homes have sunk in value, due to no fault of the people themselves and this is a huge issue, even for a country as great and wonderful as America.
How do we get value back in this economy? Well, I think at this time what we need to do is go after the easiest money available, that’s the $300 to $400 billion every year that we spend importing oil into the United States. It’s actually that much money. In July, we paid $29 billion to other governments and some international oil companies, but mostly to other governments so could have the privilege of driving up to the filling station and saying, "fill 'er up." Or put the credit card into the pump and stick it in there. And this is something that if we really want to create jobs in America, we have to tackle this and we have to tackle it now.
We’ve been talking for over 30 years about energy independence. We never got it. We have staggered through one crisis in the Middle East after another; we’ve tried to build relationships. I wrote a paper in 1973 saying some day we might have to put military forces in the Middle East to assure access to oil, and you’d have thought I committed treason in the Pentagon. They were scared to death of the paper. They couldn’t imagine that we would actually use military forces to protect access to oil. Well, what do you think the Gulf war was about? And why do you think we went back into Iraq? And in an indirect way, that’s what the whole terrorism issue has been. It’s America’s consumption of oil feeding dollar exports abroad creating petro-dollars which have enriched a lot of these other countries which have fed the resources and have created conflict.
And so here we are in 2010 spending over $300 billion in an economy that’s struggling, struggling to get any economic growth. That $300 billion a year is 3 million American jobs at $100,000 a year or 10 million jobs at $30,000 a year, and there’s Americans that don’t make $30,000 a year. That’s a lot of jobs. That’s a lot of money. That’s 50% of the Pentagon budget. It’s almost as much money as we pay on interest to the national debt. It’s enough to completely fix infrastructure in this country in a very short period of time, give every child a chance to go to college and fix healthcare. That’s the money that we are sending abroad and we can keep that money in America. All we need is the leadership to do it.
How do you do it? Well, the base is to switch off consumption of gasoline because the amount of oil in America that we’re able to pump has declined. We used to be an oil exporting country, now we’re an oil importing country. We’re still producing over five million barrels a day of oil, but we’re consuming about 19 million barrels a day of petroleum products. And the gap is mostly imports. In the second quarter of this year, April-May-June, we imported an average of more than 10 million barrels a day of petroleum products. And that’s’ simply unsustainable. The cost of that is two percent of the American GDP.
And how do we get out of it? Electric automobiles? Compressed natural gas, we’ve got plenty of it. Biofuels? We’re growing corn and enough biofeed stock that if we wanted to, we can create all the liquid fuel we would ever need in this country. And we have the technology to do it.
When the energy business started becoming a national security problem in the 1970’s, we couldn’t do that. We did not have the technology, but we do have that technology now. But what we also have is we have very strong forces on the other side resisting change. It’s about pocketbooks. It’s about job security; it’s about traditional patterns of performance by companies. And so if you’re an oil company, it’s about oil. But if you’re an electric car company, you’re fighting to get traction in the consumer market. And if you’re producing biofuel, like men and women in the Midwest are producing ethanol, you’re fighting against the petroleum industry. Because as... and I work with the ethanol industry, I work with oil, I work with gas, I work with electric automobiles. I’m across the board in the business community because that’s the only way you learn it. And you see the struggles and the tensions.
It was easy to start the Internet because there really wasn’t any competition. And when we started personal computing and people didn’t come up and say, “Oh, these personal computers, they’re really dangerous. They’ll ruin your family life, they have toxic substances, you can’t afford to have them, there’s electrical emissions, they might crash airplanes, please let’s don’t adopt personal computers.” There was no... the people who made slide rules, they just weren’t powerful enough to keep us from having personal computers.
But when it come to energy, it’s different. So we’re in a big struggle and there are a lot of forces in this economy trying to hang onto what the have. Somehow we have to have the leadership to come together to say, $30 billion a month, over $300 billion a year—it’s enough. Never again. We’re not going to pay that kind of money. A thousand dollars for every man, woman and child in America, every year to buy imported gasoline? If another nation came to us and said, "Americans, you’re lavish consumers, you pay us a tax." We’d want to go to war with them. And yet we do it willingly, we pay that tax. It’s going to Mexico and Venezuela, Hugo Chavez is the beneficiary, Nigeria, the Gulf. Why do we want to do that when we have our own technology and our own resources and we can do this at home?
We know where those resources are, we know what the technologies are. They’re all over the Department of Energy, everybody knows it, some how we have to pull together across political lines in this country and say, "Enough’s enough, we’re keeping that money in America and we’re building jobs and our own futures here."
Question: How can America wean itself off of foreign petrol?
Wesley Clark: Well, here’s the problem, that most of the imports are actually used for transportation because electrical energy mostly comes from coal or nuclear or hydro, so it’s not about imported... it’s not about, you know, directly about how you use energy for heating, it’s how you use energy for transportation. And we really only have one liquid fuel in America today and it’s gasoline. That’s what the cars are designed for. They can be designed for something else, you can have flexfuel vehicles. You have to have the infrastructure to put the ethanol in the tanks; you have to have the infrastructure to produce that much ethanol. We’re producing about maybe 12 billion gallons a year of ethanol right now. We’re using about 140 billion gallons of liquid fuel. And of that, about... well essentially all of it is imported if you consider that the oil we produce is for everything else; jet fuel and diesel and everything. So we’re using about nine million barrels a day of gasoline and that’s about what we’re importing of liquid petroleum.
We could replace that with biofuels and eventually replace liquid fuel with electric transportation. But that takes time and every month we lose more money abroad.
So we need an in-depth program, a portfolio approach, different... we can’t prescribe it, you could put trucks on compressed natural gas and liquefied natural gas. You could put cars on greater proportions of ethanol. You can build hybrid cars, plug-in hybrid cars, or electric cars. All of that has to be done. And we have to move as quickly as we can to reduce our reliance on imported oil because that money that we’re saving is what’s going to create growth in America.
Recorded September 23, 2010
Interviewed by Andrew Dermont
A conversation with the former U.S. general.
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