Democratic presidential hopeful Wesley K. Clark, criticizing President Bush's handling of the war on terror Wednesday, outlined a military-minded plan to combat terror that includes enlisting Saudi Arabian commandos in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Campaigning in New Hampshire, the retired four-star Army general continued his effort to break out of the nine-pack of Democratic presidential candidates by presenting a specific proposal that played to his military background. Some military experts, at first blush, were intrigued.
"Instead of ferreting out Al Qaeda, the administration has focused its energy and resources on Iraq," he told an audience at Dartmouth College. "They've downplayed more serious threats in other parts of the world.... It's high time we finished what we started."
With many Al Qaeda leaders being Saudi nationals -- and considering the recent Al Qaeda-linked bombings in Saudi Arabia -- Clark said he would first ask the Saudis to contribute special operations troops to a search for Bin Laden along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Second, he said, he would reassign intelligence specialists, linguists and others now searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to the hunt for terrorists.
Then, Clark said, he would seek to repair relations with U.S. allies that were damaged by the Iraq war.
"With his unilateral march into Iraq, President Bush has scorned many of our key allies, preventing the necessary cooperation to destroy Al Qaeda," Clark said.
Last week he criticized Bush, calling the administration's rebuilding efforts in Iraq lacking and offering specifics about what he would do differently, such as deploying NATO troops to the country.
During a daylong campaign swing Wednesday, Clark said the Bush administration was correct in going after Al Qaeda and its leader in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks, but that the administration too quickly lost its focus and shifted too many of its terror-fighting resources to Iraq.
Clark's speech is the latest indication that the top Democratic contenders seeking to unseat Bush are shifting focus to his foreign policy, rather than the economy.
In recent debates they've been increasingly critical of the Bush administration's policies in Iraq.
With indications that the economy is improving and that Bush is losing public favor over his handling of the war as the GIs' death toll rises, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry began airing a television ad this week showing footage of Bush on an aircraft carrier off San Diego on May 1 when the president declared major combat in Iraq over. He was the first Democrat to use the image against the president.
"His [Clark's] prepared remarks covered exclusively war issues," said Linda Fowler, a political scientist at Dartmouth who heard the retired general announce his plan. "It's clear, at least for now, that the positive headlines about the economy have taken the wind out of Democratic sails and [candidates] have to talk about non-domestic issues."
Clark, a late-comer to the campaign, has opted to forgo the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19 and focus his energy on New Hampshire, which holds the first state primary on Jan. 27 and where former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is the front-runner.
Dean has no military background but he has been openly critical of Bush's foreign policy for a year. Kerry, running second by most counts, has emphasized his experience both as a decorated Naval officer in Vietnam and longtime military affairs expert.
Clark, polling behind the other two, has highlighted his experience as a military man who also knows foreign affairs from his tenure as commander-in-chief of NATO forces.
The idea of having soldiers from one Muslim country operating in others, with the intention of tracking down and perhaps killing other Muslims, however, was "flawed," Kerry said in a statement after Clark's speech.
"Not only do the Saudis currently have their hands full, finding the terrorists who are blowing up buildings in their own capital," Kerry said. "But with their support of the Taliban and the blind eye they too often turned toward Al Qaeda, I fear operational collaborations with the Saudis in Pakistan and Afghanistan would create serious intelligence and security risks."
Some military experts, however, were intrigued by Clark's plan. Indeed, it may be well timed both militarily and politically, said retired Army Lt. Gen. James Terry Scott, who once ran delicate operations of such a nature as head of the Army Special Operations Command.
"Anything that could get the Saudis involved in an operational way is a good idea, and I think that's what Clark is trying to do," Scott said.
"The effectiveness of using an Arab nation's troops on the border between two other [Islamic] nations could be tricky, but that's not to say it's not possible," he said.
"The Saudis may have finally realized that they're the target, too, of Al Qaeda and other terror organizations," Scott continued. "They're figuring out that the way to maintain the government they have, to stave off a terror campaign that could damage the royal family, is to get on board with us."
Officials at the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington, D.C., could not be reached for comment.
Soon after launching his campaign less than two months ago, Clark contradicted himself on the war in Iraq, saying initially that he would have voted for a congressional resolution authorizing the invasion and later saying he would have opposed it. Since then, he has been consistently critical of the war and the effort to rebuild Iraq, as well as the broader war on terror.
As he has tried to make up ground on Dean, Clark's foreign policy ideas have generally played well in the state, which has as its motto "Live Free or Die," said University of New Hampshire political scientist J. Mark Wrighton.
For Clark to do well in the primary, Wrighton said, he will have to begin convincing New Hampshire voters that he has a good grasp of economic, health and other domestic concerns.
"You find more difficulty with Gen. Clark's campaign on the domestic side," Wrighton said. "That's where he needs to focus now to distinguish himself from the other candidates."
Clark announced Wednesday that he would begin airing television ads in New Hampshire next week, but did not say what they would be about.