Kevin Drum ain’t none too impressed by General Wesley Clark even after reading this Esquire profile. He does like this excerpt, though, because it shows Clark can think beyond partisan slogans:

Once, the U. S. Army tested a thousand of its officers to see how well they extrapolated future trends from current patterns. The general, long before he was a general, finished first, and now, when he articulates the principles that would inform the creation of his political platform, he does so in terms of “outcomes” five, thirty, and a hundred years in the future. For your five-year outcome, you concentrate on rebuilding the economy. For your optimum thirty-year outcome, education. And for your optimum hundred-year outcome, the entire institutional environment. And you start now.

Actually, I’m not all that impressed with that passage, either. Now, it does seem to indicate Clark is fairly smart, but most generals are. But a couple questions come to mind:

1. How the hell do you test someone’s ability to extrapolate future trends in a comparative sense? Do you have them make guesses, come back 20 years later, and see who was right? Or do you compare them to what the test designer extrapolates? Or based on some pre-ordained rule of logic? If any but the first, isn’t this a test to see who thinks “inside the box”?

2. How does one rebuild the economy? Unless you’re talking about a failed state, this seems to rely on a rather silly premise. I don’t think anyone could “rebuild” the US economy, for example, given its massive size and the butterfly effect and all that.

3. Thirty years is a lot of damned education. Even a PhD only requires 12+4+give or take 7.

4. What kind of nimrod is planning 100 years out? The Soviets couldn’t see five years into the future and they controlled the entire apparatus of the state, society, and economy.

I guess that’s more than a couple.

Update: Kevin notes in the comments discussion that he thinks Clark is talking about Iraq in this passage. While I see no mention of Iraq or, indeed, foreign policy at all anywhere near the quote, the article is so poorly written that anything is possible. So, if Clark meant he would focus first on rebuilding Iraq’s economy, I’d amend point 2 to merely say, “Well, duh, Mr. Champeen Prognosticator.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Kevin Drum says:

    Um, I think you missed the point, or maybe it was the way I excerpted it. Clark, I’m sure, was talking about places like Iraq, not places like the United States. In that context, I think his comment is spot on.

    As for me, I’m not sure whether I’m impressed with him or not. Still thinking about it. But I sure wasn’t impressed with the Esquire article….

  2. James Joyner says:

    Hmm. I went back and read the quote in content and, honestly, there’s nothing about foreign policy in that whole section. The following passage is Clark saying, “I believe that the WaveCrest electric motor has a chance to be the propulsion system of choice for the twenty-first century.” Very much the wonky Al Gore-y futurist mindset. Which I don’t object to in the abstract but find rather silly.

    I agree with the the basic premise that one doesn’t sacrifice the future for short term gains, but then that’s rather obvious. But I don’t see anything very profound in what he says.

    And, no, that’s one lousy article. Way to impressed with its subject.

  3. Kevin Drum says:

    The WaveCrest thing was just him repeating marketing happy talk for a TV spot. Basically meaningless.

    But seriously, you don’t think he was talking about “rebuilding” the U.S. economy, do you? The writer may have taken it out of context, but I think it’s pretty clear that he was talking about third world countries.

    (Of course, those were also the writer’s words, not Clark’s, so who knows what Clark really said or what he was referring to. Pretty lousy reporting.)

  4. James Joyner says:

    Honestly, it’s hard to tell from context what that whole thing was about. But there wasn’t anything about Iraq or foreign policy anywhere in that section of the piece.

    If he was indeed talking about Iraq, the “build the economy” reference made more sense. The rest still seems rather odd to me. Someone in 1903 trying to predict the future of the US, or of Egypt or Japan or whatever would have been hopelessly far off.

  5. Since I was at the Manchester meeting that the original came from, maybe I can provide some insight as to the thought process.

    Wes said that the next President should have, as the top of his agenda, job creation. He pointed out that tax cuts for the very upper income brackets, and for investing in known and stable enterprises do not stimulate the economy. Hence, he argued for a progressive taxation system to end the load that expected future debt was creating, and for targetted tax credits for job creating activities specifically, as well as general fiscal stimulus.

    He then argued that the second wave of the agenda must be to improve and maintain America’s advantages in capital formation and innovation. This meant improving the educational system in two areas:

    First, that the everyone be raised to a general level of competence, so that those who have fallen somewhat behind don’t fall farther behind.

    Second, that those who have the greatest ability be inculated with a sense of service, leadership and purpose, above and beyond personal benefit.

    This process would take a tremendous amount of time, require the gradual evolution of how teachers are trained and kept engaged, a reduction in class size and a greater focus on teaching over administrating the educational system. That quick fixes such as testing would not make any impact.

    He then said “100 years out, the only things that we will leave behind are the environment, and constitutional legitimacy. People will care whether their are trees, and whether they have access to the ballot box.”

    As for who thinks that far out? Consider:

    “We, the People, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty, for our selves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Consitution.”

    Madison and Hamilton, Washington and Jefferson were thinking that far out, so too was Lincoln, and FDR. TR was in expanding the wilderness protected by law, JFK was when he set America on the course to the moon. The building of Railroads occupied the better part of 75 years of intense government effort.

    We, in this time, should be doing so as well. But that is why principles, and not policies, are the stuff of long term programs, since policy is merely the momentary understanding of what must be done in the here and now.

    And this, ultimately, was the point Wes Clark was trying to get across that day in Manchester: that we must end the death grip on politics of particular policies, and rearchitect the national consensus which creates policy from common objectives. That this nation must leave no one behind, and that we share our burdens and rewards.

    In this way would America maintain its competitive edge, because we can go to others and say “Come, be Americans with us.” and have them live here. We can go abroad and establish legitimacy and alliances of a lasting nature, since they rest, not on momentary interest of policy, but basic principles.

  6. James Joyner says:



    Job creation, and all the programs you list, are just policy. And they’re pretty much old-line Democrat policy. Nothing new there.

    The educational goals sound great but are mere platitudes. How does one achieve these ends? Obviously, the whole point of an educational system is to inculcate general competence.

    And, sure, if you’re thinking only in terms of such incredibly broad ideas as liberty or even environmental protection, you can backward plan 100 years with some level of confidence, although, even then, technology will likely create all manner of new problems as well as fixes that we can’t foresee.

    For the most part, even Washington and Jefferson were engaged in near-term policy. TR’s protection of the wilderness is indeed a good example of a policy decision that had incredibly long term results. JFK’s goal was to get us to the moon before the decade was out; which was barely achieved posthumously.

    This stuff is pure claptrap: “we must end the death grip on politics of particular policies, and rearchitect the national consensus which creates policy from common objectives. That this nation must leave no one behind, and that we share our burdens and rewards.”

  7. SamAm says:

    Clark was talking about the US economy. Rebuilding isn’t the word I would have chosen, but when one considers the current defecit, debt, and the fact that in all probability they will only worsen in the next decade (plus, new Medicare expenses) “rebuilding” isn’t out of line at all.

    In regards to education, Clark means that the process of educating a person, from birth to maximum productivity, is a 30 year process (18 years of pre-school, then school, 4 years of college, ~3 years for graduate or professional degrees, and then job training. It is at least a 20 year process, and in the education-centric future (more kids in college) 30 years sounds about right (even for those with only HS degrees).

    As for the environment, over 100 years of deforestation, coal mining, coal and wood burining, industrialization, sanitiation increases, and the use of the internal combustion engine have all combined to make up at least part of our current situation. Scientists in Antarctica have found fossil fuel emmissions buried in trace amounts in ice from over 100 years ago. So it’s not at all unreasonable to address enviro issues in the context of their definite impact on future generations.

  8. Paul says:

    I have a rather obvious question.

    If General Clark is so gosh darn good at predicting the future… How come he has no freaking clue how today’s military works when he only left it a few years ago?

    I could have gotten on CNN and flipped a quarter and been more correct than him.

    Maybe I’m a simpleton, but I ain’t impressed.

  9. KP says:

    Clark’s “30-year” reference to education has nothing to do with how long it takes to complete one degree or another. Instead, his point is that a person reaches his or her maximum earning potential about 30 years after completing his or her schooling. Thus, when thinking about maximizing our wealth as individuals and as a society 30 years out, we focus on our kids’ education now. Simple stuff, but hugely important.

    I hope General Clark runs. If he does, he will shake American poilitics to its core, and the skeptics will be forced to reconsider their doubts. This guy is something special, and not just because of his meteoric biography. I could write much more, but I’ll stop here and let General Clark clarify the rest if he chooses to enter the fray.