Defending the General
The New Yorker's unfair slam on Wes Clark and his role in the Kosovo 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."
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Wesley Clark by Brian Snyder/Reuters.