The trouble with Wes

Posted: Sep 22, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

After Clark's meeting with Mladic, the State Department cabled embassies throughout Europe that there was no change in policy toward the Bosnian Serbs. The incident cost Victor Jackovich his job as U.S. ambassador to Bosnia, even though he protested Clark's course. The upshot came months later, when Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, in bitter negotiations with Holbrooke, handed Clark back his Army hat.

After such behavior, Clark was never on the promotion list to full general until he appealed to Defense Secretary William Perry and Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He got his fourth star and became commander in chief of the Southern Command. His last post, as NATO supreme commander, found this infantry officer leading an air war against the Serbs over Kosovo. Clark argued with NATO colleagues by insisting on a ground troops option and complaining about the slowly graduated bombing campaign. He was pushed out abruptly by Defense Secretary William Cohen.

Since retiring in 2000, Clark has not been less contentious. Secretary of State Colin Powell was furious that a fellow four-star general in his CNN commentary would criticize U.S. strategy in Iraq, without much information and with the war barely underway. Clark attributed one comment to a Middle East "think tank" in Canada, although there appears to be no such organization. After claiming that the White House pressured CNN to fire him, Clark later said, "I've only heard rumors about it."

Nevertheless, liberals who gathered Thursday night at the Manhattan home of historian Arthur Schlesinger agreed that a general is just the right kind of candidate to oppose President Bush and that they never had seen any general so liberal as Wes Clark. They chose to ignore past performance, which may be cause for regret.