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.

In the end, Russian reinforcements were stopped when Washington persuaded Hungary, a new NATO member, to refuse to allow Russian aircraft to fly over its territory. Meanwhile, Jackson was appealing to senior British authorities, who persuaded Clinton Administration officials–some of whom had previously favored occupying the airport–to drop support for Clark’s hotheaded plan. As a result, when Clark appealed to Washington, he was rebuffed at the highest levels. His virtually unprecedented showdown with a subordinate subsequently prompted hearings by the Armed Forces Services Committee, which raised sharp questions about NATO’s chain of command.

As a Guardian article said at the time, “The episode triggers reminscences of the Korean War. Then, General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the UN force, wanted to invade, even nuke, China, until he was brought to heel by President Truman.” Of course, the comparison is inexact. The stakes were not as high in the Balkans, but Clark’s hip-shooting willingness to engage Russian troops in a risky military showdown at the end of the war is instructive nonetheless.

Indeed, it is believed in military circles that Clark’s Pristina incident was the final straw that led the Pentagon to relieve him of his duties (actually retire him earlier). Clark had also angered the Pentagon brass–and Secretary of Defense William Cohen in particular–with his numerous media appearances and repeated public requests for more weapons and for more freedom to wage the Kosovo war the way he wanted (with ground troops). At one point, according to media reports, Defense Secretary Cohen, through Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Hugh Shelton, told Clark to “get your fucking face off of TV.”

In recent years, it’s only fair to note, Clark has insisted in interviews and in his memoir Waging Modern War that the incident was a surprising moment for him. Clark said that his order to confront the Russian troops was refused by an emotional General Jackson, who took the matter up the British chain of command, where General Charles Guthrie, British Chief of Defence, said that he agreed with Jackson. Guthrie, according to Clark, told him that Joint Chiefs Chairman Shelton also agreed with the British. This surprised Clark because he claims that the original suggestion to block the Russians came from Washington. Clark maintains that the matter was a policy problem between the US and British governments and insists that he was carrying out the suggestions of the Clinton Administration.

Despite concerns this incident raises, it remains a fact that the Clark candidacy is a tantalizing prospect. Clark says he is a liberal Democrat who favors abortion rights, affirmative action, gun control and progressive economic policies. He has also spoken eloquently about basing America’s role in the world on the country’s better principles: “generosity, humility, engagement…”

The other day, Clark told Bill Maher on HBO that this country was founded on “the idea that people could talk, reason, have dialogue, discuss the issues…We can’t lose that in this country. We’ve got to get it back.”

Perhaps Clark has learned that building alliances–and not risking showdowns–is more crucial than ever in these perilous times? It would be good to hear from the general himself now that he has decided to run for president.