October 15, 2003

October 15, 2003 | Commentary on

General Confusion: Wes Clark's March on the White House

Americans tend to trust Republicans more than Democrats when it comes to national security, suspecting that Republicans are from Mars and Democrats from Venus. In the post-September 11 world, therefore, it is not strange that Democrats are pleased to find a four star general among their presidential candidates, and a telegenic one at that.

Since his announcement in September, Gen. Wesley Clark, former supreme allied commander in Europe, has cut quite a figure. His candidacy immediately changed the dynamics in the Democratic field, which was until then led by ultra-liberal Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. It is very likely that President Bill Clinton, Gen. Clark's political mentor, intended exactly such a shake-up before Mr. Dean's lead solidified.

Gen. Clark is a novice in the field of politics, and it shows. Questions have been raised about his potential breaking of campaign ethics rules; his campaign manager resigned after two weeks; and his political views seem uncertain. Before the 2000 election, Gen. Clark was even considered by some to be Republican presidential material. Instead, he has now turned to the Democratic Party, but his previously expressed sentiments in praise of the Republican administration now haunt him in debates.

The fact that the Gen. Clark is running as an outsider and a military leader more than a politician may help him overcome these handicaps. But that means also that his record as the highest ranking American military leader in Europe is fair game and deserves scrutiny. Most of all, what kind of general does not know what he thinks about the war in Iraq? 

Gen. Clark may see himself as following in the footsteps of George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower, generals who became president. Unfortunately, the victory he presided over in Kosovo against Serbia -- a minor, fifth-rate European military power of 10 million people -- hardly bears comparison with the achievements of Washington and Eisenhower. One inflicted the only major defeat on the British in 100 years, the greatest military power of the 18th and 19th centuries, the other conquered half of Europe and stopped the Nazi war machine in its tracks.

Nor was the victory in Kosovo a glorious one. Oddly for a U.S. Army general, Gen. Clark decided to rely exclusively on airpower in the war against Serbia. And according to his book, "Waging Modern War," he did so without providing a backup plan for the introduction of ground forces in case that failed. In Operation Allied Force, which started in March 1999 and lasted for 78 days, airpower was to stop the vicious ethnic cleansing carried out by the Serbs against the Kosovars. Through the targeting of civilian infrastructure in Serbia, it was to drive Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic from office.

Milosevic did at long last step down, but there were many problems. One was that ethnic cleansing, which rose to horrifying levels during the air campaign, only stopped when the Kosovo Liberation Army was able to launch counterattacks against the Serbs on the ground. As the victors, they subsequently became as brutal to the Serbs as the Serbs had been to their people.

Bombing from high altitudes beyond the reach of Serbian anti-aircraft fire, American pilots found it hard to distinguished their targets. Civilian convoys, passenger trains, the Chinese embassy in Belgrade became unwitting targets. (It is unlikely the Chinese will ever believe it was an accident.)

Working with European commanders was hard. British commander, General Sir Michael Jackson, refused to carry out Gen. Clark's orders when he commanded the British to halt the Russian advance towards Pristina airport in Kosovo. "I am not going to start World War III," Gen. Jackson reportedly told him outright.

Gen. Clark is known to be brilliant but headstrong, and his relations with Washington were not good either. It is an interesting paradox that Mr. Clinton, who drafted Gen. Clark into the presidential race, was also the man who forced him into early retirement after the war against Serbia. As Gen. Clark describes it in his memoirs, his relations with the Clinton administration were so bad that Defense Secretary William Cohen and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Hugh Shelton tried to prevent him from attending NATO's 50th anniversary summit in Washington.

Could it be that Mr. Clinton hopes that the same stubbornness that used to infuriate members of his own national security team will make Gen. Clark a flawed presidential candidate? If that is the case, the Clintons may anticipate that Gen. Clark will self-destruct once he has accomplished his mission, thus shaking up the field of democratic candidates and paving the way for a Hillary Clinton candidacy. Surely, stranger things have happened in Washington.    

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Appeared in The Washington Times