It was reported today that retired four-star General, ardent critic of Bush’s national security policies, telegenic TV commentator, and recently declared Democrat Wesley Clark will enter the crowded presidential race.
Democrats believe that Clark, as a former military officer, could make the party more viable on foreign affairs than it’s been since a general named George Marshall was containing Communism under the command of a president named Harry Truman. (That’s the conventional wisdom, though the staggering cost of the badly bungled Iraqi occupation has diminished the Republican advantage on defense no matter who runs against Bush.)
While media commentary on Clark’s prospective candidacy has been almost entirely favorable–even adulatory–it’s worth looking back at a forgotten chapter in his military biography that occurred when Clark was Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and Commander In Chief for the US European Command. Call it Clark’s “High Noon” showdown. It’s an incident that deserves scrutiny because Clark’s claim to be an experienced leader in national security matters is tied, in significant part, to his record in the Balkans.
On June 12, 1999, in the immediate aftermath of NATO’s air war against Yugoslavia, a small contingent of Russian troops dashed to occupy the Pristina airfield in Kosovo. Clark was so anxious to stop the Russians that he ordered an airborne assault to confront these units–an order which could have unleashed the most frightening showdown with Moscow since the end of the Cold War. Hyperbole? You can decide. But British General Michael Jackson, the three-star general and commander of K-FOR, the international force organized and commanded by NATO to enforce an agreement in Kosovo, told Clark: “Sir, I’m not starting world war three for you,” when refusing to accept his order to prevent Russian forces from taking over the airport. (Jackson was rightly worried that any precipitous NATO action could risk a confrontation with a nuclear-armed Russia and upset the NATO-led peacekeeping plan just getting underway with the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo.)
After being rebuffed by Jackson, Clark, according to various media reports at the time, then ordered Admiral James Ellis, the American in charge of NATO’s southern command, to use Apache helicopters to occupy the airfield. Ellis didn’t comply–replying that British General Jackson would oppose such a move. Had Clark’s orders been followed, the subsequent NATO-negotiated compromise with the Russians–a positive element in the roller-coaster relationship between Moscow and Washington, which eventually incorporated Russian troops into peacekeeping operations–might well have been undermined.