BRUSSELS -- Ever since retired Army General Wesley K. Clark tossed his combat helmet in the ring for the Democratic nomination, his campaign has trumpeted his experience as the supreme allied commander of NATO forces during the war in Kosovo.
In speech after speech, he has criticized President Bush's war in Iraq as dangerously unilateral and ill-conceived and has held up the 1999 war that halted Slobodan Milosevic's campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo as the model of what Clark calls "modern war."
In the corridors of power here at the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and in the sprawling bureaucracy of the European Union, those who knew Clark offered a split verdict on his tenure: Many were very positive, but often there were countervailing criticisms.
In interviews with US and European military officials, diplomats, and analysts who worked alongside Clark from 1997 to 2000 when he served as supreme allied commander, Clark was described as a decisive leader, but also as a "micromanager."
He is extremely ambitious, said one official, who like most others at NATO spoke on condition of anonymity. Yet these officials also noted that Clark was willing to risk nasty confrontations with superiors on matters of principle.
Clark, who finished third Tuesday in the New Hampshire primary, was said to be a believer in international consensus, but he executed a war in which he made it clear to allies that the United States would be in full control.
Javier Solana, secretary general of the Council of the European Union and high representative on Common Foreign and Security Policy, worked with Clark in the long, tense standoff that led up to the war in Kosovo as well as during the military campaign and throughout its aftermath.
"The Clark I know is a military leader with great capacity," said Solana. "He was a very proactive general, and sometimes criticized as too proactive."
For example, when Clark arrived in 1997 he had clear ideas on NATO's role as a stabilization force in the Balkans and he pushed hard to define that role, even if he sometimes stepped on the toes of some of the NATO ambassadors.
On the eve of the Kosovo war, he also went up against his superiors in the Pentagon, not to mention President Clinton, by insisting that a ground invasion had to be prepared and completely in place for it to be a credible enough threat to force Milosevic's troops out of Kosovo.
"He has this nice face, but at the same time is firm, very determined. He was not always an easy man to deal with. He had his ideas, and he wanted them to prevail," added Solana.
But often, Solana said, those ideas were the right ones.
On the day in January 1999 when news broke that Serb forces had massacred 45 ethnic Albanians at Racak, Clark arrived with photos from Kosovar Albanian newspapers covering the slaughter. He made an impassioned presentation and told the NATO ambassadors gathered for an emergency meeting, "We have to act!"
"I watched that very decisive style and saw [it throw] Milosevic off balance," remembered Solana.
Steven Everts, director of the trans-Atlantic program for the Center for European Reform, a London-based think tank, has closely studied the diplomatic and military lessons of Kosovo.
"On paper, Europeans should like Clark. But there is some hesitation," said Everts. "He pushes all the right buttons on multilateralism and consensus, but when you speak with those who worked closely with him, there is often a different impression."
The most obvious example of that was Clark's insistence that since the United States provided more than 90 percent of the assets in the war, that it alone would select targets and devise strategy.
One incident was revealing. Russia had helped broker the deal for the Serbs to surrender, but then Russia unexpectedly made a move to land its own peacekeepers at the Pristina airport. Clark ordered Britain's commanding officer, Lieutenant General Sir Michael Jackson, to send paratroopers to seize control of the landing strip before the Russians could arrive.
Jackson refused the order, and in a response that has been quoted in numerous accounts and not denied, told Clark, "I'm not going to start the Third World War for you."
Soon after that, Clark was notified that he would be relieved of his NATO command two months early. The move was viewed as a form of disapproval by General Henry H. Shelton, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other brass in the Pentagon with whom Clark had found himself at loggerheads. Yet a short time later, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
A European NATO diplomat, who worked alongside Clark during his three years at NATO, said Clark had a reputation as a "micromanager," which tripped him up on occasion in Kosovo.
In one case, the official said, a convoy of civilian trucks and tractors was mistakenly targeted by NATO forces on a road near Djakovica, killing scores of civilians. Relying on preliminary battlefield reports from his forces, Clark told a television news interviewer that Serb forces were to blame. In the following days, NATO conceded that US airstrikes had killed the civilians. Clark was criticized by news media at the time for giving uncorroborated information about the incident and having to correct it later.
The Kosovo campaign was ultimately an air war with virtually no allied casualties. It was carried out with wide international consensus. It had an effective plan for postwar stabilization. And in the end, Milosevic was brought to international justice. The victory made Clark a hero among Kosovar Albanians.
Michael Clarke, director of the International Policy Institute at King's College London, said, "Clark carries a certain amount of baggage among Europeans, but he also has experience. There would be a sense here that we understand this guy."