The New Yorker's slam on Wes Clark.

Military analysis.
Nov. 13 2003 7:13 PM

Defending the General

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

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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.

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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.