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September 21, 2003

Clark's Military Record Offers Campaign Clues


WASHINGTON, Sept. 20 — This was Wesley K. Clark at his best.

As the senior military negotiator in 1995 at the Bosnia peace talks in Dayton, Ohio, he used a mix of high-tech computer mapping and personal charisma to persuade Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian president subsequently indicted for war crimes, to agree to a crucial boundary detail. That helped pave the way for the agreement that ended the bloodiest war in Europe since World War II.

But four years later, he showed himself at what his critics call his worst. After General Clark successfully led the 19-member NATO military alliance to victory in Kosovo, he was worried that the Russians might threaten the peacekeeping mission. So he issued an order to use American troops to block a runway to prevent the Russians from flying in reinforcements to an airfield they occupied at Pristina. A British subordinate thought the order so foolhardy and dangerous that he refused to carry it out.

According to several published accounts, the subordinate, Lt. Gen. Michael Jackson, defiantly told General Clark, "Sir, I'm not starting World War III for you."

These are dual aspects of General Clark, 58, who last week plunged into another kind of theater of combat — joining nine other candidates for the Democratic nomination for president. They reveal an uncommon potential for leadership but also his unpredictable nature.

It remains to be seen which Wesley Clark will emerge in the campaign ahead. He has no experience on the campaign trail, which is not to say he has no political experience. His fast-track rise to the top of the military, earning his first general's star at the youthful age of 43, attests to his deftness.

"He rose quickly by using his superior intellect and his superior political skills," said Joe Lockhart, who was President Bill Clinton's spokesman at the White House and worked with General Clark. "He's not as much as a neophyte as some would like to paint him."

General Clark's distinguished 32-year active-duty military career is his chief credential for seeking the presidency. It reveals both strengths and shortcomings as it helps to peel back the layers of this man who, for most Americans, is a blank slate.

His career is highlighted by heroics. In Vietnam, he was awarded a Silver Star and Purple Heart, sustaining four wounds while on patrol one day north of Saigon.

"I have scars all over my body," he said in a recent interview.

In Bosnia, when an armored vehicle carrying civilian and military colleagues plunged off a rain-swept road near Sarajevo, he tied a rope to a tree and rappelled down the mountainside in an effort to rescue them.

On a lighter note, he demonstrated a flair for raiding enemy territory when he was a cadet at West Point. On Armed Forces Day in 1964, he said, he and some buddies had cadged an invitation to a party in Manhattan for Navy midshipmen. They crashed the party, which is where Cadet Clark met Gertrude Kingston, an executive assistant on Wall Street and his future wife.

His record also reveals a man who is obsessively competitive, with a drive to win at everything he does, no matter how meaningless.

"He is competitive drinking coffee with you," said a senior State Department official.

With that comes a reputation for arrogance, end-running his bosses and what some perceive to be lapses in judgment, some of which nearly derailed his career, according to former senior Pentagon officials.

In one attention-getting episode in 1994, he had been advised by the State Department not to meet with Gen. Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian-Serb general accused of slaughtering hundreds of civilians in pursuit of ethnic cleansing. General Clark met with him anyway.

General Mladic gave General Clark a bottle of plum brandy and an inscribed pistol; then the two swapped hats and posed for pictures that were splashed all over Europe. Privately, administration officials fumed that being buddy-buddy with General Mladic was "like cavorting with Hermann Goering." A Pentagon spokesman was left to explain that there must have been "a breakdown in communications."

Even General Clark has acknowledged in interviews and in his memoirs that some in his own service resented him, and at a critical juncture in his military career, his civilian boss, Defense Secretary William J. Perry, had to intervene to keep his career on track. Mr. Perry said in an interview that he had awarded General Clark his fourth star over the Army's favored candidate for the promotion. Mr. Perry, who has already endorsed Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts for president, said of General Clark, "His intellectual horsepower is very impressive."

General Clark was famous for impressing his bosses throughout his career, and yet, at the pinnacle of his power and influence after the Kosovo war, he was cashiered by his boss, William S. Cohen, the secretary of defense, after openly challenging the Clinton administration's reluctance to use ground troops in the conflict.

"I find him to be a guy who's very clever at determining which way the wind's blowing," said Gen. Paul Funk, who was General Clark's boss in the early 1990's. "Who knows, maybe in the political world that's a good thing."

Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar at Princeton, said that General Clark was in a precarious position as he stepped out on the political stage, in part because he did not yet have a coherent narrative of his life story. "They have to shape the story, and it's not out there," Mr. Greenstein said. "He's got a record that makes him seem potentially like an Eisenhower or a Powell rather than a Schwarzkopf or Patton or one of these people who don't have mainstream appeal. But he somehow needs to bring that to the fore."

What has puzzled some political professionals is that the general's expertise is supposed to be as a military commander, strong on preparation and organization, and yet he does not seem to have a structure or strategy in place for a campaign.

This was immediately evident last week when he announced his candidacy. He did so before hiring a campaign manager and filling other important slots — and before he seemed to have thought through his positions. This was apparent as he reversed himself on the issue on which was perceived to have the most credibility — the war in Iraq.

On Thursday, the day after he announced his candidacy, he said, "I probably would have voted for" the resolution. On Friday, he backtracked, saying, "I never would have voted for war." But last October, according to The Associated Press, he said he supported a Congressional resolution to give President Bush authority to use military force against Iraq. He then spent months as a television commentator criticizing the president's action.

That is all the more remarkable given General Clark's history of unfailing preparation for whatever challenge he has taken on and his laser-like determination to achieve since he graduated at the top of his West Point class in 1966 and went to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.

During the 1991 Persian Gulf war, for instance, General Clark, then a one-star officer, was in a rear-echelon job as commander of the Army's national training center in the Mojave Desert, a task that included whipping units of the Georgia National Guard into combat shape.

"My job is to get them ready to pass the ultimate test," he said in an interview just before the air war started, dismissing any misgivings that he would be missing out on front-line action in the gulf to train the citizen soldiers.

By the mid-1990's, General Clark had risen to be the chief political-military officer on the military's Joint Staff. In the run-up to the invasion of Haiti in 1994, he insisted that the military plan not only for a worst-case scenario but also for an unopposed entry, which was the eventual outcome. It was a step that State Department officials said most likely prevented bloodshed.

It was in that job that General Clark first appeared on the international stage, when Richard C. Holbrooke tapped him as his top military adviser during the Dayton peace accords in November 1995. In the marathon three-week negotiations that Mr. Holbrooke brokered, General Clark oversaw the drafting of the military chapter of the agreement that gave free rein to a NATO peacekeeping force in Bosnia.

That part of the pact drew criticism from some of General Clark's four-star superiors. But Mr. Holbrooke, who wrote in his book of the tension between General Clark and fellow officers, said in a telephone interview, "Wes ran interference for me with the uniformed services."

After a one-year stint as head of the military's Southern Command, overseeing operations in most of Latin America, General Clark was picked to be the top American commander in Europe and the NATO supreme military chief, one of the most prized jobs in the military.

He seemed perfectly suited for the post, given his experience in the Balkans and his proficiency in Russian. But as he settled into his job, overseeing not only the accord he had help broker for Bosnia but preparing for possible conflict in the Serb province of Kosovo, his strengths also became his weaknesses.

Commanders in Bosnia, and later in Kosovo, complained that General Clark would micromanage from his headquarters in Belgium the tactical details of missions usually left to commanders on the ground.

"It was tenuous at times," said Maj. Gen. David Grange, who is retired now but who headed the First Infantry Division in Bosnia and Kosovo. "He did get into the weeds."

As he struggled to keep the fractious NATO alliance united, he repeatedly clashed with his bosses in Washington — Mr. Cohen and Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — when he urged the use of American ground troops and Apache attack helicopters after days of bombing alone failed to bring Mr. Milosevic's surrender.

It is unclear how someone so skilled in the political ways of Washington could have put himself in such a precarious position with his civilian masters. Yet when he received word from General Shelton in July 1999 that his command would end earlier than scheduled, General Clark was stunned.

Similarly, despite his months of toying with whether to run for the presidency, he seems ill-prepared. Even if his goal is to be picked as a vice-presidential running mate, he still seems to be short on the fundamentals, like a top-level staff, message and strategy.

A prominent Democratic fund-raiser said that General Clark seemed bright but that signals from the campaign had not given him confidence.

"You have to worry about a campaign where the theme is so thin that it's based on just `I can win,' because he's never run before and he's getting an incredibly late start," the fund-raiser said.

Mr. Lockhart said there was no way to predict how someone, least of all a four-star general, would take to the campaign process. "He's clearly smart enough to do this, he has the communication skills to do this, he has the whole package and the résumé," he said. "Now we'll find out whether he can do it."

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