Wes Clark's beautiful but sneaky bio ad.

Political ads dissected and explained.
Nov. 20 2003 10:56 AM

Still Life

Wes Clark's beautiful but sneaky bio ad.

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The first bullet shattered his hand ... (strings) ... the second and third hit his shoulder and leg (snare drums). As he hit the jungle floor, he rallied the troops and directed the firefight ... (helicopter over string crescendo).

This feels like the opening sequence of Platoon. In their respective presidential campaigns, Bob Kerrey and John McCain at least feigned a bit of reluctance about touting the intimate details of their Vietnam heroics. This Clark guy doesn't hold back! The message here is pretty blunt: Vote for me, I'm a war hero.

But what really bothers me about this ad is the conflict it points to in Clark's views about military intervention. The argument of this spot is that Clark can get us out of the mess in Iraq because he fixed Kosovo. "In the Balkans," the narrator says, "... [Clark] led a multinational force that stopped a campaign of terror, liberated a people, and brought peace without the loss of a single American soldier" (flash to black-and-white still photo of Clark being embraced by liberated Kosovars). Clark does deserve immense credit for what he accomplished in the Balkans, working through NATO. As Fred Kaplan reminds us, Clark's drive to stop the genocide in Kosovo in 1999 pitted him against Secretary of Defense William Cohen and most of the U.S. military brass. That was a brave stance, and it has been vindicated by subsequent developments.

It leaves, however, a big question about Clark's principles when it comes to humanitarian military intervention. Why did his determination to fight on humanitarian grounds in Kosovo not extend to Iraq? In the scale of his despotism, Saddam Hussein was Stalin to Milosevic's Mussolini. Saddam's efforts at ethnic cleansing and repression were bigger and more vicious than anything Milosevic was capable of. Clark objects to the way Bush went about making war on Iraq, and so do I. But everything Clark says now is calculated to leave the impression, true or not, that he wouldn't have used the military to end the humanitarian and human rights catastrophe in Iraq.

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What distinguishes these two instances of humanitarian intervention isn't principle, but politics. Kosovo was Clark's war. Iraq is Bush's. The general's self-serving use of one war to flay his enemy for the other is hardly shocking. Yet I resent this ad for trying to wash the contradiction away with swelling violins.

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.