This is the fifth in a series of profiles of leading candidates in the 2004 presidential race. Second of two parts
When Wesley Clark arrived at Georgetown University in November 1965 for a conference on international affairs, a woman at the registration desk noticed that the West Point cadet hailed from Arkansas.
"Arkansas?" she said. "Well, you have to meet our class president. He's from Arkansas."
"What's his name?" Clark asked.
"Never heard of him," the 20-year-old Clark said. "Are you sure he's from Arkansas?"
"Oh, yes, he talked about watermelons and things."
"OK, well, sure. I'd like to meet him."
An hour later, "Clinton comes in, a girl on each arm, and introduces himself," said Clark, recalling the encounter. Clark, a straight arrow in his spiffy cadet uniform, and Clinton, the lanky, woolly-haired man-about-campus, were stylistic opposites but had much in common. Both were raised by stepfathers and adoring mothers who struggled to make ends meet. Both left their rural state with dreams of stardom. Both were selected as Rhodes scholars.
The Arkansans discussed Clinton's political ambitions, and Clark concluded that Clinton would not only run for president one day, but also was "the most impressive man I'd met on the college circuit in three years of traveling around." From that moment on, the pair would follow each other's progression on the national stage.
But the Vietnam War soon divided them. Clinton famously avoided the draft, while Clark fervently believed in the war effort and fought in combat. Yet a quarter-century later, it was war that united them -- this time in Kosovo. That war, now viewed as a smashing success, was in fact nearly a disaster. The story of that 1999 US military intervention, and the crucial role of the complex Clark-Clinton relationship, is one of the most important chapters of Clark's life.
Clark's career was at a crossroads when his old friend, Clinton, arrived in the White House and immediately fell out of favor as commander in chief. Before his election, Clinton was viewed with suspicion because of his draft avoidance. After his inauguration, his efforts to allow gays to serve in the military enraged both officers and troops. The new president needed a friend in uniform, and Clark fit the bill. In time, Clinton helped Clark win a series of promotions, culminating in the general's appointment as NATO's supreme allied commander.
But even as the pair's relationship solidified, Clark found that he was making a series of high-level enemies at the Pentagon, which eventually would cost him his job and set him on a path as a Democratic presidential candidate.
Friction with top brass
Like a slashing sword, the brief statement by retired General Hugh Shelton, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, seemed to undercut everything that Wesley Clark stood for. Clark, Shelton told a California forum in September, won't get his vote. "I've known Wes for a long time," Shelton said. "I will tell you the reason he came out of Europe early had to do with integrity and character issues, things that are very near and dear to my heart."
Weeks later, former Defense Secretary William Cohen, who helped engineer Clark's ouster as NATO commander, said in a CNN interview: "There was friction between General Clark and myself. . . . I felt that the ax, as such, when it fell, spoke for itself."
Neither Shelton nor Cohen have elaborated on their stinging denunciations, prompting Clark to complain that he is the subject of McCarthy-like attacks. But if Clark is running on his record as a highly decorated general, why was he condemned by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense with whom he worked? And if Clark is running on his political skills, how did he manage to squander the spoils of the Kosovo victory by being ousted as NATO chief?
The answer to these questions lies at the heart of the Clark story. He is simultaneously considered one of the most brilliant men to serve in the US Army and one of the most disliked. Those who admired Clark boosted his career for years, while detractors seethed at his rapid climb through the ranks.
After returning from the Vietnam War in 1970 and recuperating from his wounds, Clark found refuge in 1971 back at West Point. For nearly three years he taught political philosophy, lecturing about Plato and Rousseau to young men as the war in the jungles of Vietnam slowly wound down.
Clark saw himself as a leader who could help rebuild a demoralized Army with an all-volunteer force better trained and more educated than the one that had served in Vietnam. But after years of working within the system, "I slowly realized that I was going against the Army tide of the time, which emphasized older commanders and deemphasized education and broadening experiences," Clark wrote in his 2001 autobiography, "Waging Modern War." "It was a time of the `country-boy' and `jes' plain soldierin'.' Lots of people with fancy master's degrees and PhDs kept it quiet if they could."
For the next two decades, Clark laboriously climbed the military career ladder, working as a White House fellow, as an aide to NATO commander General Alexander Haig, and as a commander at Army bases from Colorado to Texas. While he was lauded for his intellect and skills in whipping troops into shape, he was not battle-tested beyond his brief action in Vietnam.
Fortunately for Clark, however, he did have some allies in Washington, most notably President Clinton. In 1993, Clark reconnected with the new president through an unlikely intermediary: actress Mary Steenburgen, a Little Rock native who was friends with both men.
"One of the things they have in common is me," Steenburgen said. And as it happened, Steenburgen and Clark, who had known each other as children in Little Rock, were both appointed to a commission charged with selecting White House fellows, a mission that led to a visit with Clinton in October 1993.
Steenburgen's mother, Nell, had been best friends with Clark's mother, Veneta. The two women had worked together at a Little Rock bank, and Veneta Clark loved to brag to Nell Steenburgen about her son, Wes. Nell Steenburgen came along on one occasion when Clinton invited the Little Rock entourage to the family dining room on the second floor of the White House. "There is this feeling of being part of a family of people that come from there," Steenburgen said about her hometown. "I think Bill and Wes and I all three really ferociously love where we came from."
At the time, Clark was serving as commanding general of the 1st Calvary Division in Fort Hood, Texas. Clark heard that the president was pushing Clark for a top job, calling him "my friend, Wes Clark." As it happened, a longtime Clark friend, General Barry McCaffrey, was leaving his job as chief of planning for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and suggested Clark as his replacement. Another longtime Clark friend, General John Shalikashvili, or "Shali," as he was known, was chairman of the Joint Chiefs and offered Clark the job.
The post was a breakthrough for Clark. Overnight, he went from being a military commander at a far-off base to chief of strategic planning for the Joint Chiefs, placing him squarely in the center of decision-making between the White House and the Pentagon -- and giving him the freedom to visit global hot spots.
Yugoslavia heats up Clark's first assignment was to assess the unfolding crisis in Rwanda, later labeled by Clinton as "the world's worst humanitarian crisis in a generation." The International Red Cross announced in May 1994 that 500,000 Rwandans had been killed in civil strife.
Shortly after he arrived that same spring, Clark worked on a plan to ship 20,000 US troops to the country. But nothing happened, and the plan was widely viewed as a pro forma exercise. Former Clinton aides don't remember Clark pushing it. There was "no political will to do this," Clark said. "To be clear, we knew it was bad then, but most of us didn't know how bad."
Meanwhile, an increasingly brutal war in the former Yugoslavia was heating up, and Clark was charged with helping assess what action the Clinton administration should take. In August 1994, he met in Banja Luka with Serbian General Ratko Mladic, the military leader of the Bosnian Serbs. Clark's lack of diplomatic experience was evident: Photographers snapped him swapping caps with Mladic, widely considered an international war criminal.
The meeting was "unfortunate," recalled Shalikashvili. Clark "had this exchange of hats and other stupid things, and there was quite an outcry over it. Wes and I talked about it. We both concluded it was something he wished he had not done and I wished he had not done." A letter from Clinton to critics helped calm the controversy.
Clark went to Bosnia in August 1995 in what turned out to be one of the most hazardous trips of his life. The peace mission to war-torn Sarajevo included senior State Department official Richard Holbrooke, who would prove instrumental in Clark's career. Just months before, Holbrooke and Clark had had a confrontation over whether to expand NATO. At one point, Clark -- pounding his fist on the table -- asked if he was being accused of "insubordination" or disloyalty to the president because of his opposition to expansion, according to Clark's account. Holbrooke, in an interview, said he responded by asking Clark to write a report on NATO, and the two eventually patched up their differences. By the time Holbrooke made the trip to Bosnia, his top military aide was Clark. Also on the trip was Clark's ally from the earlier dispute over NATO, assistant deputy secretary of defense Joseph Kruzel.
Every avenue of approach to the embattled Bosnian capital of Sarajevo was dangerous. As the Americans contemplated their options some 100 miles away at the Hotel Kastile in Split, Holbrooke dared Clark and Kruzel to leap from their third-floor rooms into the harbor below. It was a flashback to when Clark was 14 years old and his Little Rock swimming coach had dared him to jump from an iron bridge into a river. Clark and Kruzel "leaped into the water, proud of their courage," Holbrooke later wrote.
On Aug. 19, the Americans set out toward Sarajevo along the famously dangerous Mount Igman Road, with Clark and Holbrooke wearing flak jackets and helmets inside the lead car, a US Army Humvee. Kruzel, Clark's old Pentagon ally, followed in a French armored personnel carrier with several others, including Robert C. Frasure, a senior State Department official, and S. Nelson Drew, a representative from the White House's National Security Council.
At 9:30 a.m., the US caravan emerged from the woods onto a precipitous edge of road carved from the mountainside, with Sarajevo visible in the distance. As the Humvee rounded a corner, Clark and Holbrooke heard someone yelling. The French personnel carrier had fallen off the road's edge. "Clark and I ran back about 30 yards," Holbrooke wrote. "About six inches of red clay seemed to have broken off the edge of the roadbed [causing the fall]. We could hear voices in the woods below, but we saw nothing except a few flattened trees. Somewhere below us lay the [personnel carrier] with our colleagues."
Suddenly, shooting broke out, followed by explosions. The noise may have been Serbian gunners, or the munitions in the French vehicle, or both. Clark found a rope, tied it around a tree, and rappelled to the burning vehicle.
"Bring a fire extinguisher!" Clark yelled, according to Holbrooke's account, but none could be found.
The crash had been catastrophic. Kruzel had been pulled out by a survivor minutes before the munitions inside the vehicle exploded. But he died from massive head injuries. Frasure and Drew also were killed.
"It's the worst thing you've ever seen down there," Clark told Holbrooke after returning to the road, according to Holbrooke.
The dead and injured were taken to a field hospital. Clark eventually made it to Sarajevo, where he called President Clinton, who was vacationing in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Holbrooke got on the phone and praised Clark. You'd be proud of your fellow Arkansan, Holbrooke told Clinton, according to Holbrooke's account in his autobiography, "To End a War." Then Clark got on the line, describing the scene to Clinton. The Mount Igman Road was like a tortuous stretch in the Ozarks, Clark told the president, referring to mountains in their home state.
It was one of the most extraordinary, difficult, and dangerous days of Clark's life. Yet in his 479-page autobiography, Clark devotes less than one paragraph to it. In an interview, during which a bout with laryngitis forced him to reply to questions with handwritten answers, Clark explained that Holbrooke had described the event already, and that he had some space constraints in his autobiography. Pressed further, Clark wrote the following in a reporter's notebook:
"You ask did I feel responsible. Of course, and I have asked myself about it a lot. I should have ordered every man in the French APC to strap on their helmets. I ordered Holbrooke, with me, [to do so]. But the cause of the accident was the French vehicle moving to the shoulder to make room for an oncoming convoy. . . . [I] went further down to find the APC. By that time it was burning, and two men alive had been pulled out. I stayed to make sure the remains were properly removed."
A fourth star A few months later, in November 1995, the warring parties in the Balkans agreed to attend a peace conference in Dayton, Ohio. Clark played an integral role in the talks, once again working alongside Holbrooke as a military representative, this time to ensure that the military could implement the peace plan. At the signing ceremony, Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic told Clark: "It was your NATO, your bombs and missiles, your high technology that defeated us. We Serbs never had a chance against you." Several years later, Clark would remember Milosevic's concern about NATO bombs when the Kosovo conflict arose.
"I thought Wes really came into his own during those negotiations, and I was most happy from my perspective," Shalikashvili said. But other military leaders did not share Shalikashvili's enthusiasm. By March 1996, Clark thought his Army days were over. He believed that top Army officials -- rankled that Clark rose in the ranks ahead of their preferred candidates -- were opposed to giving him the fourth star he coveted.
But Clark got a break, and once again it was due to Shalikashvili, with support from Clinton.
A job was open as the head of US Southern Command, then headquartered in Panama. The Army had already interviewed its candidate for the post, Lieutenant General Marc Cisneros, who had led the successful US invasion of Panama seven years earlier. Army officials told Cisneros that the job was probably his, but that it had to be cleared by the White House.
Instead, Shalikashvili intervened on behalf of Clark, with Clinton's support. Cisneros, who was in Washington interviewing for the job when he heard about the development, went to see Clark at the Pentagon.
"Oh, no, that is not true, Marc," Clark said, according to Cisneros's recollection. "It is yours for the taking."
Today, Cisneros is bitter about the experience and believes that voters should know that Clark lied to him.
"When he told me, I took him at his word," Cisneros said in a telephone interview. "To lie like that -- we try not to operate that way as generals in the Army. I felt that he was dishonest. I felt betrayed that he wasn't honest with me."
Cisneros said he believed it was Clinton, not Shalikashvili, who arranged for Clark's promotion. "I personally think Clark was told he was not going to get promoted, but he was buddies with Clinton," and thus secured the Southern Command job. Cisneros said that this action is why many top Army leaders disliked Clark even before the clash over the Kosovo campaign.
"It was just Clark looking out for himself," Cisneros said. "That is how he is viewed by many of his fellow officers. He is so ambitious that his integrity comes into question. To me, Wes Clark is like that one-eyed Jack, but there is another side that not a lot of people know about."
Clinton declined requests for comment. Clark, referring briefly to the promotion in his book without mentioning Cisneros's name, wrote without explanation: "It seemed that the Army's pick for the job hadn't been acceptable for some reason."
Clark said through a spokesman that he had been told he was not in the running for the job and therefore did not lie to Cisneros.
Clark got his fourth star.
He gamely learned Spanish, but his time in the job was brief, mostly providing preparation for a much bigger job that Shalikashvili had in mind for him: supreme allied commander and head of US European Command. Once again, the Army had its own candidate, and it wasn't Clark. And once again, Shalikashvili pushed hard for Clark to get the job, and Clinton agreed.
"Again, as it was with SouthCom, there were a number of people nominated by the other branches, and the Army had also another individual," Shalikashvili said. "I had a very strong role in [Clark's] last two jobs."
"It was like a dream come true," Clark later wrote in his autobiography. "But sometimes dreams turn into nightmares."
Clark's new job had its perks, including a huge estate in Belgium. Returning to the place where he had worked two decades earlier for Haig, Clark moved into the Chateau Gendebien in Mons, a Flemish-style mansion set on 23 acres. As Clark described it later, the accoutrements included "three greenhouses, five gardeners, a tennis court . . . my own aircraft, a converted DC-9 . . . two Blackhawk UH60 helicopters for shorter journeys . . . two armored Mercedes staff cars . . . a personal staff of about one hundred people, in addition to the staff at the chateau."
But the situation was awkward. Here was Clark, in one of the most important jobs in the US military, and many of the top military leaders didn't like him. And events were moving so quickly in the former Yugoslavia that Clark was about to lead the US in a war that his military boss in Washington didn't even support.
Crisis in Kosovo
While the Dayton accords were supposed to have ensured peace in the region, the crisis was now moving to Kosovo, where the ethnic Albanians who made up the majority were ruled by a Serbian minority. The ethnic Albanians, through their Kosovo Liberation Army, had been fighting the Serbs in a battle for independence. The well-equipped Serbs responded with strong attacks, raising fears of a repeat of the "ethnic cleansing" that had ravaged the Balkans. To many US military leaders, there was no compelling US interest in Kosovo. But Clark, having watched the US stand by in Rwanda and wait too long to get deeply involved in Bosnia, believed that the US and NATO should take a stand in Kosovo.
Clark's Kosovo stance made him, in Holbrooke's opinion, the perfect choice. "He was essentially a liberal interventionist, forward-leaning in the use of national power," Holbrooke said in an interview. Almost from the beginning, Clark was in conflict with his superiors in Washington.
To make matters worse, Clark's patron, Shalikashvili, stepped down as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In his place was a man who would become one of Clark's chief critics: General Henry "Hugh" Shelton. Shelton reflected the "plain soldiering" culture that Clark had long believed worked against him. As Clark later wrote, Shelton had "outstanding field command credentials, but little Washington experience and no previous service with NATO." The ingredients for a first-class military clash were unmistakable -- and they quickly developed.
Clark had an important ally in Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who favored such strong action in Kosovo that a Time magazine cover called it "Madeleine's War." Albright and Clark had known each for years. He had been one of her military briefers when she was US ambassador to the United Nations, and she had taught his son, Wes Jr., when she was a professor at Georgetown University. The close relationship between Clark and Albright angered the Pentagon brass, who believed that Clark was working his Kosovo plans through the secretary of state.
"It was very evident during our meetings with the president that Shelton and Cohen had real doubts about" intervening in Kosovo, Albright said in an interview. "I told the president, `We have a very good partner in Wes Clark.' "
In July 1998 Clark returned to Washington to show Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a plan for limited operations against Serbia. When Shelton wasn't available, he discussed it in general terms with a White House official, prompting Shelton to worry that Clark was going behind his back. Clark said he heard that Shelton believed Clark "had one foot on a banana peel and one foot in the grave." Clinton, who by then was enmeshed in the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment proceedings, was alternately viewed as disengaged on Kosovo or anxious for a war to distract attention from his problems. In January 1999, as the president and his top aides were discussing military intervention, 45 ethnic Albanians were executed in the village of Racak, prodding NATO to finally take action.
Clinton tried to split the difference between the feuding Clark-Albright alliance and the Pentagon. Clinton would support an air war in Kosovo, but he declared that he had "no intent" to deploy ground troops. The deal worried Clark. While he hoped to win the war with air power alone, he feared that eliminating the threat of ground action would encourage Milosevic to wait out the bombs. After weeks of failed negotiations, Clark gave the orders for bombs to start falling on March 24, 1999.
But the war was not short, and the bombing initially was not very effective. Clark was hampered by disagreement among NATO countries and the Pentagon about which targets to bomb. And US Air Force leaders, who played a lead role in the bombing, disagreed with Clark's strategy, preferring to focus bombing on the Serbian capital of Belgrade rather than go after forces in Kosovo. (A Rand Corporation study commissioned by the Air Force called the initial reticience to bomb Belgrade "a misjudgment of near-blunder proportions [that] came close to saddling the United States and NATO with a costly and embarrassing failure.")
During the first week, Clark became convinced that he needed a backup plan for ground forces despite opposition from the Pentagon and the statement by Clinton. Ivo Daalder, a former aide in Clinton's National Security Council who also was briefed by the White House during the war, said Clark developed a "secret cell" of a half-dozen officers from Fort Leavenworth in Kansas to develop a ground-war plan.
"On his own nickel, without anybody's approval, he got a ground war plan," said Daalder, co-author of a book about Kosovo, "Winning Ugly." Clark "didn't ask Shelton for it because he knew the answer. He got the secret cell, a planning cell, that was going to do planning on a ground invasion that was not authorized by anybody, but he argued, rightly in my mind, that he needed to figure out what the options were going to be."
Clark, asked about the plan in an interview, said, "I went through Shelton and the Army to get the ground war planning started. Shelton OK'd it." Shelton declined requests for an interview, but the matter raises questions about whether this is one of the reasons that the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has questioned Clark's "integrity and character."
Clark's skirmishes with the Pentagon continued. He spent weeks trying to win permission to use low-flying Apache helicopters, but Army officials, he said, were so concerned about losing them that they blocked combat deployment.
A turning point came on April 23, as NATO leaders gathered in Washington for a 50th anniversary celebration. Reporters asked Clark about Serb strength in Kosovo. The general said it was difficult to assess Serb strength without being on the ground. The next day, newspaper headlines quoted Clark as saying that NATO bombs had failed to stop Serb attacks in Kosovo. The Pentagon was livid.
"Wes, at the White House meeting today there was a lot of discussion about your press conference," Shelton told Clark, according to Clark's account. "The secretary of defense asked me to give you some verbatim guidance, so here it is: `Get your . . . face off the TV. No more briefings, period. That's it.' I just wanted to give it to you like he said it. Do you have any questions?"
The grim war news continued. Bombs dropped on a bridge hit a bus, causing civilian casualties. And when the US Air Force got its wish and bombed regularly in Belgrade, the Chinese Embassy was mistakenly targeted. The White House began to seriously consider implementing Clark's request for ground troops.
But as the bombing increased, Serbian resolve diminished. One major factor was diplomatic: The Russians, who had long-standing ties to the Serbs, pressured Milosevic to give in to NATO's demands. On May 27, Milosevic was indicted as a war criminal, and on May 30, his government capitulated to NATO. The war was over.
Clinton called Clark to congratulate him, but Clark told the president he still had a problem: The Russians wanted to control a sector of Kosovo. Clark feared that if the Russians were given a large sector, the war would have achieved "almost nothing," as he later put it.
A small contingent of Russians had already arrived at the Pristina airport by land. When Clark got word that Russian troops were preparing to fly into the airport, Clark told a British commander, Michael Jackson, that the airport had to be sealed off. Jackson refused.
"Sir, I'm not going to start World War III for you," Jackson said, according to Clark's account.
"Mike, I'm not asking you to start World War III," Clark responded. "I'm asking you to block the runways so that we don't have to face an issue that could produce a crisis."
Clark received mixed signals about whether Shelton backed him up, and British military officials refused to comply with his order. The British eventually blocked roads leading to the airport, not the runways. The Russians gave up their demands for controlling a sector and agreed to disperse a limited number of troops to work with NATO forces. On July 6, several planeloads of Russians landed at the Pristina airport. The crisis was over, and ethnic Albanians were streaming back into Kosovo by the thousands.
The United States had not lost any lives in combat. A grateful Clinton gave Clark the Presidential Medal of Freedom. From Clark's perspective, the outcome vindicated his vision: NATO had prevented a humanitarian disaster in Kosovo. This would not be another Rwanda or a repeat of Balkans failures. The Pentagon, meanwhile, took satisfaction that the war was won without ground troops or Apaches.
But Cohen and Shelton now moved to replace Clark with their favorite, Joseph Ralston. Clark says he was told by Shelton that Ralston, to avoid reverting to two-star status, needed a new assignment because his term as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was ending.
Nevertheless, Clark viewed the move as his forced retirement and was outraged. "It didn't wash," Clark wrote. According to Clark and a former Clinton aide, the president thought he was signing off on a plan agreed to by Clark, and later told his friend he was livid over the ouster.
After the Army
Clark's military career was over. For the next two years, he did work for various corporations, including data provider Acxiom Corp. and the investment banking firm of Stephens Group, both based in Little Rock. He also made paid speeches and wrote a book largely devoted to giving his side of his many conflicts with the Pentagon. Clark also joined CNN as a commentator, a position that may have given him more visibility than all of his years of military duty. His smooth performance was well reviewed.
But on March 20, he rankled military colleagues once again by asserting that soldiers today are better trained than those he knew in Vietnam. "You remember from our days in Vietnam. Remember those guys, with the ragged T-shirts and the helmets off and -- this is a different Army today," Clark told CNN viewers.
Clark's comment, which has received little publicity, set off a firestorm among some Vietnam veterans. An Internet site devoted to the First Division, the "Big Red One" in which Clark served in Vietnam, became a sounding board for complaints. This prompted an officer who served at Clark's side in Vietnam in 1969, Mark Lowrey, to post a response on the message board in which he both defended Clark and provided a telling analysis.
"Wes will never recant what he said that was insulting to the men of the [Big Red One division] in Vietnam," Lowrey wrote. "He never really knew the soldiers that we marched among, and he is too arrogant to ever admit that he was wrong about anything. Remember this: He is one smart guy, and he is not an evil person. He is just toweringly ambitious, and he `knows' that he is superior to all other human beings."
There are plenty of top military leaders, such as Shalikashvili, who speak glowingly of Clark. In addition, some of Clark's onetime critics have changed their minds about him. Retired Colonel David Hackworth, a highly decorated Vietnam War veteran who once wrote that Clark was a "perfumed prince," now says, "I was wrong" and blames former Defense Secretary William Cohen, among others, for timidity in Kosovo. Supporters also cite jealousy among those who watched Clark win one promotion after another in a fiercely competitive climate.
As Clark seeks the presidency, he is drawing on the political lessons of his old friend and valuable supporter, Bill Clinton. The former president has talked frequently to Clark, although he has not endorsed any candidate. But Clark's staff is filled with old Clinton hands, and his campaign headquarters is just down the street from where the Clinton crew worked its magic a dozen years ago. The War Room is once again open for business in Little Rock, and a retired general is there on the fourth floor, drawing up his battle plans.
Michael Kranish can be reached at email@example.com