War Stories

Defending the General

The New Yorker’s unfair slam on Wes Clark and his role in the Kosovo war.

What’s so bad about winning a war?

I don’t know whether Gen. Wesley Clark is qualified to be president, but Peter J. Boyer’s profile in this week’s New Yorker—which paints him as scarily unqualified—is an unfair portrait as well as a misleading, occasionally inaccurate précis of the 1999 Kosovo war and Clark’s role in commanding it.

Boyer relies heavily on some of Clark’s fellow retired Army generals who clearly despise him. The gist of their critique, as Boyer summarizes, is that Clark, while a brilliant analyst, “had a certainty about the rightness of his views which led to conflicts with his colleagues and, sometimes, his superiors.”

I have met a fair number of generals, and I can’t think of a single one who did not have “a certainty about the rightness of his views.” There may have been a couple of one-star generals who expressed this certainty in a modest tone, but above that rank—and Clark retired as a four-star general—their confidence easily became belligerent if their opinions were challenged.

Boyer acknowledges that Clark alienated some generals simply because he rubbed them the wrong way. First in his class at West Point, a Rhodes Scholar, an officer who felt at ease as a White House fellow and as a high-level Pentagon planning analyst—Clark’s résumé did not fit many traditionalist officers’ view of a warrior. However, Clark’s most outspoken critics disliked him because of his views and actions during Kosovo, and that is where Boyer misreads both content and context.

Kosovo was the United States’ first post-Cold War experiment in “humanitarian intervention.” Clark, who was the U.S. Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (and who, before that, had been a military aide in the Dayton negotiations over Bosnia), supported going to war in order to protect the Kosovars from the savagery of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. Secretary of Defense William Cohen and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had no taste for interventions of practically any sort, opposed it.

That much, Boyer has right. But much else, he does not.

For instance, he portrays Clark as not only maneuvering around the chiefs in his advocacy, but also as drawing a lackadaisical Clinton White House—distracted by domestic troubles over Monica Lewinsky—into war. In fact, however, Clinton may have been distracted somewhat, but Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was not. Albright was a fiery supporter of military intervention in the Balkans (many have written of the famous meeting where she appalled the reticent chiefs by saying, “What good are all these fine troops you keep telling us about if we can’t use them?”). Albright was the prime mover; many observers at the time—supporters and critics alike—called it “Madeleine’s war.” And her prime collaborator, Richard Holbrooke, Clinton’s envoy to Bosnia, also enjoyed direct access to the president.

So it is more than a bit startling to read, in Boyer’s article, the following sentence: “Clark’s view, which had the support of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Holbrooke, prevailed.” It would be more apt to say, “Albright’s view, which had the support of Holbrooke and Clark, prevailed.” She welcomed Clark’s endorsement, but she didn’t need it to make her argument or to win it.

Boyer also distorts the war itself, mischaracterizing it as a senseless adventure. He tacitly takes the chiefs’ position on this, without noting that many others besides Clark (and, for that matter, Albright and Holbrooke) held otherwise. Thousands of Bosnians were dying in a war that U.S. military power could have ended. Hundreds of thousands of Rwandans had recently been massacred in a civil war to which neither the United States nor the United Nations raised a finger, much less a fighter plane, in protest. Many of those pushing for intervention—and they included not just Clark but some of the most liberal, customarily antiwar politicians and columnists—wanted above all to avert another massacre. A case could be made—and the chiefs made it—that the United States shouldn’t get involved in such messes where our own national security wasn’t threatened. But it is false to attribute Clark’s passionate lobbying, as Boyer pretty much does, to mere stubbornness.

Boyer is also off base when he likens the Kosovo conflict to George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. He notes that Clark recently criticized Bush for invading Iraq without U.N. approval, yet observes that the Kosovo war was also initiated without the Security Council’s permission. The bypassing of the United Nations that marked the onset of Kosovo, he writes, “did not seem entirely dissimilar from the prewar maneuverings regarding Iraq,” when Bush bypassed the U.N. and resorted to a “coalition of the willing.”

In fact, the two wars—both their beginnings and their conduct—were extremely dissimilar. True, when Clinton realized Russia and China would veto a resolution calling for intervention, he backed away from the Security Council. However, he did not subsequently piece together a paltry, handpicked caricature of a coalition, as Bush did for the war in Iraq. Instead, he went through another established international organization—NATO.

From that point on, the aim of the war was not only to beat back Milosevic, but also to hold together the Atlantic Alliance, which was, after all, fighting the first war of its 50-year history. Compromises had to be made in military tactics in order to achieve this political objective—and that, too, was anathema to U.S. officers.

Air Force Gen. Michael Short, who presented Clark with a plan involving a classically massive set of opening-day airstrikes, was “dismayed,” Boyer writes, when Clark didn’t approve the plan on the grounds that NATO’s member nations would never approve it.

Boyer, on balance, takes Short’s side on this tale. Under Clark’s command, Boyer laments, the United States “could only wage war by committee; the process was so unwieldy that it became, to future American Defense officials, an object lesson in how not to fight a war.”

Maybe. But is there much doubt today that Clark was correct in this choice? Does anyone care to argue that intervening in Kosovo was a bad idea, that the Western alliance wasn’t (at least for a brief spell) strengthened as a result, or that the war was unsuccessful? Milosevic surrendered, was captured, and is standing trial for war crimes in a court of international law—which is more than can be said of Saddam Hussein. The Serbian defeat was total, unchallenged, and internationally imposed, which may explain why the (truly multinational) postwar peacekeeping forces have suffered minimal casualties in the intervening years.

Clark was fired by Secretary of Defense William Cohen shortly after the war ended—and, just to make sure Clark didn’t try to make an end-run, the chiefs leaked the firing to the Washington Post. The reasons for his dismissal seem clear: Clark had pushed a policy that Cohen and the chiefs had opposed (and, even after the war, continued to oppose); he went around them in his advocacy; he was too close, for the chiefs’ taste, to Clinton (in signing Clark’s release papers, Clinton was led to believe the move was a normal succession, not a dismissal); and, toward the end of the war, he pushed for a ground-invasion option that none of the Pentagon’s top officials supported in the slightest.

Clearly, Clark made mistakes. Like many, he thought that merely threatening Milosevic with airstrikes would make him back down; after that didn’t work, he thought three nights of bombing would crack his resistance. (The bombing campaign lasted 11 weeks.) But Clark was far from alone in this miscalculation; Clinton and Albright shared it. Clark also delivered a disastrous press briefing in the middle of the war (prompting Cohen to order him, “Get your f***ing face off the TV, no more briefings, period”). But the briefing (which I remember well and reported on at the time) was a disaster because Clark committed truth: He admitted, in a roundabout way, that the air war wasn’t going well; he was impolitic, but he was right.

The fact that Cohen hated Clark, shuddered at the sight of him according to Boyer’s article, should cause no discomfort to any prospective voter today. Cohen posted the least distinctive record of any secretary of defense in modern memory; he was widely seen as a milquetoast at the time and left no legacy to speak of.

Gen. Hugh Shelton, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is another matter. Shelton has recently and famously said, in a public forum, that Clark’s firing “had to do with integrity and character issues,” adding that, for that reason, “Wes won’t get my vote.” Shelton has since refused to elaborate. If there’s a story behind his claim, he should tell it, in the interests of the country. If there isn’t, he should apologize. Boyer obviously talked with him in the course of researching the story, but the case against Clark—while there very well may be one—remains unmade.