Robert Novak

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The important Democrats eager to run retired Gen. Wesley Clark for president might exercise due diligence about a military career that was nearly terminated before he got his fourth star and then came to a premature end. The trouble with the general is pointed out by a bizarre incident in Bosnia nearly a decade ago.

Clark was a three-star (lieutenant general) who directed strategic plans and policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington. On Aug. 26, 1994, in the northern Bosnian city of Banja Luka, he met and exchanged gifts with the notorious Bosnian Serb commander and indicted war criminal, Gen. Ratko Mladic. The meeting took place against the State Department's wishes and may have contributed to Clark's failure to be promoted until political pressure intervened. The shocking photo of Mladic and Clark wearing each other's military caps was distributed throughout Europe.

Last week on CNN's "Crossfire," I asked one of Clark's new supporters -- Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois -- about that indiscretion. "Well, I don't know about the photo," he replied. He and other Clark backers, led by Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, might want to dig more deeply into the general's turbulent military career before getting too deeply committed.

For Emanuel, Rangel and other well-connected Democrats, Wes Clark seems a dream come true. He is walking the liberal line on taxes, abortion, racial quotas and Iraq. But he has military credentials and decorations that George W. Bush lacks. Even before formally announcing last week, Clark had 10 percent in Gallup's first national listing of him among presidential candidates and was just 6 percentage points behind the front-runner. Clark comes over on television as a square-jawed straight-shooter, not the stormy petrel that the Army knew during 34 years active duty -- including his conduct in the Banja Luka incident.

U.S. diplomats warned Clark not to go to Bosnian Serb military headquarters to meet Mladic, considered by U.S. intelligence as the mastermind of the Srebrenica massacre of Muslim civilians (and still at large, sought by NATO peacekeeping forces). Besides the exchange of hats, they drank wine together, and Mladic gave Clark a bottle of brandy and a pistol.

This was what U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke's team seeking peace in Yugoslavia tried to avoid by instituting the "Clark Rule": whenever the general is found talking alone to a Serb, Croat or Muslim, make sure an American civilian official rushes to his side. It produced some comic opera dashes by diplomats.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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