Clark hopes military credentials will resonate with voters
September 18, 2003
WASHINGTON — Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark knew triumph and controversy during his military career, and he hopes that his resume will resonate with voters as he challenges fellow Democrats and George W. Bush for the presidency in 2004.
In announcing his party affiliation Sept. 4, Clark became the Democrats’ de facto expert on national defense and likely their best chance to win an election that could turn on security issues.
Clark graduated first in his class from the United States Military Academy at West Point, was wounded in Vietnam, commanded the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas, and the U.S. Southern Command in Panama, and finally was Supreme Allied Commander Europe and commander-in-chief, United States European Command.
He became known on the world stage through his 1995 work on the Dayton Peace Accords, which brought an end to civil war in Bosnia and involved 20,000 U.S. troops in a 60,000-strong NATO peacekeeping force.
Clark was commander of NATO during the 78-day air war against Yugoslav forces, ousting them from Kosovo and allowing a NATO-led peacekeeping mission.
With the end of the war came the race with Russian troops to the airport near Pristina, Kosovo. Clark ordered airborne troops to take the airfield, but his order was not carried out by his field commander, British Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Jackson, who became the first commander of the Kosovo peacekeeping force.
Clark was characterized in the international media as a warmonger after it was reported that Jackson refused the order by telling Clark he was “not going to start World War III for you.”
The general had to balance the delicate diplomacy of handling a 19-member alliance that worried about public opinion at home with the needs of his commanders in the field.
Then-NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson said Clark met that challenge and was respected by the allies for it.
Clark said this was only part of the most difficult thing he had to do during the war.
“The hardest thing was to balance off the need to escalate and broaden the air campaign with the needs to protect innocent civilians on the ground,” Clark told Stars and Stripes in 2000. “There were very few nights that I didn’t worry about who was going to be hurt on the ground — Serb or Albanian.”
Even after the campaign, controversy surrounded him.
Clark was awarded the Kosovo Campaign Medal. But though Clark commanded the international alliance that pushed Yugoslav forces out of Kosovo, regulations on time spent in the area or flying missions over Kosovo prevented him from earning the medal.
EUCOM sought tens of thousands of waivers for troops supporting the war, and it was assumed that Clark had received one when Gen. Eric Shinseki pinned it on him at a Pentagon ceremony, though no “paper trail” could be found.
Clark has always had his detractors, but he is widely regarded as a brilliant, driven man.
Richard Holbrooke, the main U.S. negotiator during the Dayton peace talks, described Clark’s passion to Stripes in 2000:
“His aggressive style evidently produces critics and that goes with the territory,” saHolbrooke said. “The bottom line is he produces results.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Jon Anderson contributed to this report.