THE PROBLEM WITH WESLEY….I’ve been sort of watching and waiting to see how Wesley Clark handles the reality of being a presidential candidate, and so far the criticisms of him seem to be of two varieties: (a) he’s never been so much as a city councilman, so he’s got a helluva nerve thinking he can be president, or (b) he’s a cunning, ambitious guy who worked just a little too hard to get himself promoted in the Army.

Neither one of these strikes me as especially noteworthy, but last week in Slate the normally rational Michael Kinsley decided to lob up another trial balloon: isn’t it really childish, he asks, that people are supporting Clark even though they don’t know very much about him? Now, having been around politics for two decades, and having just watched Arnold Schwarzenegger win a landslide victory in California, I’m not quite sure if Kinsley is genuinely naive or if he’s just pretending to be, but I think he makes two big mistakes here.

First, he mocks Clark for not having fully thought-out positions on every possible topic after having been in the race for three weeks. Then, without even seeming to notice that he’s done it, he makes a hard U-turn and admits that that’s a dumb way to evaluate a candidate. “Anyway, a fully stocked larder of policies and positions on issues is a vapid measure of a political candidate,” he says.

That’s right: reams of white papers on every conceivable topic are just fluff. What matters is that a candidate has the right instincts, the same broad views on policy that you do, and that he shows good judgment. So Kinsley’s basic complaint that Clark is a blank slate doesn’t hold water, and he obviously realizes this himself.

But there’s a far more basic mistake he makes in his column: talking only about domestic policy. What he inexplicably misses is the fact that national security and foreign policy are more important to a lot of people ? and likely to be more important in next year’s election ? than domestic policy.

And in this area, Clark has policy ideas to spare. He’s already written a whole book about the Kosovo war, complete with loads of policy recommendations, and he’s got a new one coming out shortly. And this is what has so far attracted me to him.

Clark seems to understand ? and have genuine experience with ? the central foreign policy truth that the Bush administration lacks: a global war requires lots of strong allies. This was true in World War II, it was true in the Cold War, and it’s going to be equally true in the War on Terrorism. The United States could not have won either of those previous wars on its own, and it can’t do it this time either.

The Bushies have spurned international cooperation at every turn. Oh, they occasionally mumble some platitudes about it, but their rhetoric and their action have turned virtually the whole world against us, they have shown nothing but contempt for multilateral institutions, and in the end this means that even sympathetic allies will have a hard time continuing to support us for long. There are limits to what even Tony Blair can do when two-thirds of his constituents think he’s wrong.

On the other side of the aisle, the rest of the Democratic candidates make the right noises on this subject, but it’s obvious that Clark is the only one who truly understands the complexity and importance of this issue. He has experience building multilateral support for war, he understands just how hard and how frustrating it is trying to hold that support together in the face of differing political agendas, but he also realizes that it’s absolutely necessary to do it anyway. It may be maddening ? and occasionally humiliating ? to watch this particular sausage getting made, but real leaders hold their tempers and get their hands dirty in the sausage factory anyway because in the long run it’s the only way we’re going to win.

And that’s what we need. Republican/neocon plans for fighting the war on terror are based on a fantasy of American hyper-puissance that is almost certain to lead to ultimate failure. U.S. military power is strong, but it is not omnipotent, and without a broad range of strong allies who agree on broad goals and are with us for the long haul, we will eventually retire from the field defeated and exhausted.

So no matter how much you despise the UN and NATO and the cheese eating surrender monkeys and all that, if you’re serious about winning this war then you’ll swallow your pride and figure out how to work with them. Wesley Clark appears to understand that ground level reality better than any other candidate, and that makes him very much not a blank slate. In fact, it might make him the best qualified candidate out there.

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