Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, who today formally joined a field of nine other Democratic candidates for president, may find the source of his greatest political appeal -- his long military experience -- is also his greatest liability, according to many uniformed officers and civilians who know him well.
Nearly every one of his former colleagues interviewed over the past few weeks lauded Clark's intelligence, bravery and charisma. The general earned Purple Heart and Silver Star medals in Vietnam in 1970 and continued to serve the nation in uniform for 34 years. Clark, 58, held five prestigious joint-service positions, including one year as top commander of U.S. forces in Latin America and the Caribbean, and nearly another three as supreme allied commander in Europe. It was there that Clark led NATO's 1999 war over Kosovo.
But for all his accomplishments, it is difficult to find former colleagues who admire Clark without also raising serious concerns about his judgment, reliability and ego. Perhaps most troubling for those who view him as a "white knight" -- a late entry among Democratic aspirants to the presidency who could eclipse all others in a large field of candidates -- may be that many of Clark's military contemporaries and subordinates lost faith in him long before he entered the political arena.
Almost any military officer who becomes a general has incited jealousy and made enemies along the way. Defense observers often say an inflated ego is common among general and flag officers.
"Wes always sounded brilliant," says retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who preceded Clark as the chief of U.S. Southern Command. "That's hard to swallow for the old boy's club."
But Clark's critics in the military -- found not only among his Army competitors but also senior officers in the other services -- describe incidents of lapsed judgment, blind arrogance or unabashed hypocrisy not commonly seen among generals.
In June 2000, then-Defense Secretary William Cohen made a public display of shooing Clark into retirement a few months earlier than expected. But less well known was a widespread sense of relief that he was gone, expressed privately by the general's military colleagues.
Clark did not respond to a reporter's request for comment by press time (Sept. 17).
But McCaffrey says Clark "is probably among the 10 most intelligent and balanced individuals I've met." Interviewed Sept. 17, McCaffrey -- who first met Clark about 30 years ago -- also called the new presidential candidate "one of the kindest" people he has known and a man of "incredible integrity."
"My impression is he's kind of a Rorschach test," says Franklin Foer, a writer for The New Republic who authored a July op-ed in The Washington Post calling Clark "an ideal solution" for the Democratic ticket. "People react to him in radically different ways. Some people fall in love with him and other people come to disdain him."
Among those doubtful that Clark might have what it takes to be a good leader, either as president or vice president, are several who served most closely with him at the apex of his military power -- as leader of allied forces in the war against Serbia. Given the president's role as commander in chief of U.S. armed forces, keeper of nuclear weapons and leader of the free world, Clark's reputation among his fellow military officers could prove to be a pivotal test for him as he runs for president.
Over the years, a number of Clark's former colleagues who served alongside him in both bureaucratic and wartime battles have used some extreme terminology to depict what they say is a deep-seated difficulty with speaking truthfully. Many say they gave up reading his 2001 memoir on the conflict in the Balkans, "Waging Modern War: Bosnia, Kosovo and the Future of Conflict," before finishing it because the book was rife with inaccuracies and misperceptions.
"He is, by all accounts, extraordinarily bright and enormously capable, but even more ambitious," says Richard Kohn, an expert on civil-military relations and a former Air Force historian. "A sense of unbounded egotism filters up through his memoir of the Kosovo campaign. Officers in a position to know have told me that the book contains errors, distortions and downright untruths, quite beyond what one might expect from a work of 'personal perspective.'"
"What kind of a person was he in combat?" said one military officer who served with Clark in the Kosovo war. "He was somebody I did not trust in combat. It's that simple."
A simple conclusion, perhaps, but the picture that emerges from extensive interviews on Clark's character is fairly complex.
Meeting with a suspected war criminal
Clark first entered the public consciousness in September 1994, when, as a three-star general working for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he went on what he has described as an official fact-finding trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina. At the suggestion of the British commander of U.N. forces in Bosnia, Clark visited with both Muslims and Serbs, including Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic. At the time, Mladic was widely suspected of war crimes but would not be formally indicted for another 11 months.
The meeting may have gone virtually unnoticed had Clark not agreed to Mladic's suggestion they trade military hats as a token of mutual trust, according to officers on the scene. Mladic also offered Clark his gun, and Clark took it, officials say.
But when photographs of the two, wearing each other's caps, appeared in European newspapers, lawmakers back home began asking pointed questions about Clark's discretion.
"It's like cavorting with Hermann Goering," one U.S. official complained at the time to The Washington Post.
Back at the Zagreb airport, Clark ran into trouble trying to get through customs, according to retired Army Col. David Hunt. A Green Beret whose responsibilities included providing military escorts to high-ranking U.S. officers in Bosnia, Hunt says he received an emergency telephone call after Clark got to the airport.
When Bosnian authorities found Mladic's pistol and hat in Clark's briefcase, they detained the American general for more than three hours, Hunt reports. Clark was forced to surrender the war criminal's belongings and explain why he had them. Clark insisted Mladic had put him on the spot by spontaneously proposing to trade personal effects.
But one U.S. military officer who served in the Kosovo war asks how Clark could have accepted a gun from a suspected war criminal, given that the weapon may have been fired on an unknown number of innocents. This officer, like most uniformed personnel still on active duty interviewed for this article, spoke only on condition of anonymity.
"It was absolutely disgraceful conduct and he should be held up for it," Hunt said of Clark in a Sept. 11 interview.
The blunder was apparently an embarrassment, but Hunt says the trip was "disastrous" because of something even more significant that occurred.
In discussions with Alija Izetbegovic, the late president of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and his military deputies, Clark reportedly alluded to the possibility that the United States would consider breaking its arms embargo by providing weapons to the Muslims. Clark asked Izetbegovic and Bosnian Muslim Commander Maj. Gen. Rasim Delic if they could use additional weapons from the United States, according to Hunt, who has testified before congressional and presidential investigators on the matter.
"I was looking forward to hearing personally what military assistance Delic felt he would need if we were to lift the arms embargo and change U.S. policy," Clark writes in his memoir.
On meeting Mladic, Clark writes that he reflected about how many people "have the opportunity to size up a potential adversary face-to-face?"
"Bad photo," acknowledges McCaffrey, but adds it was no worse than that. "For God's sake, I have dealt with some of the most loathsome people on the face of this earth," he told ITP. As a high-ranking officer with international responsibilities, "you deal with them in a dignified and apparently open manner -- unless you're in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and firing on them."
Asked to react to those who believe Clark may have crossed a line in his diplomatic foray, McCaffrey responded, "Why wouldn't you use every interpersonal trick you've learned to try to get them to negotiate with you?"
In his memoir, Clark does not mention the flap over taking Mladic's gun or cap, but does note that the Post story discussed his failure to obtain the U.S. ambassador's approval for his visit. Clark acknowledges the oversight, blaming a subordinate for failing to properly "work" the details of his trip.
He also insists that despite subsequent calls in Congress for his dismissal over the controversial trip, he had never been warned against visiting Mladic. President Clinton, Clark writes, "sent a letter back to Congress in my defense, and, after a few meetings with congressional staffers, the controversy died."
Hunt insists that before Clark arrived in Zagreb, a high-ranking U.S. officer in Naples warned the general not to meet with Mladic.
"I think it was probably -- most definitely -- a mistake," The New Republic's Foer told ITP this week. He said he hopes Clark will account for the lapse in judgment during the campaign, as it "would be dumb to not have the humility to admit it was a mistake."
'I didn't know what to trust'
In his memoir, "Clark reveals that in his own behavior and motivation, he was pursuing his own agenda and attempting to manipulate his military superiors and political masters into courses of action he believed useful," says Kohn, head of the Curriculum in Peace, War and Defense at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. "One senses here a man who may not understand the norms of his profession on civilian control of the military. . . . Perhaps worse, [Clark] understands but does not accept them, in part out of confidence that he, rather than elected or appointed leaders over him, knows best."
During the Kosovo war, "with so much at stake in terms of national objectives and human life, I always wondered about his motives," said one officer. "He's somebody whose motives never struck me as being clearly doing what was right or best. There always seemed to be an underlying theme or motive. Some of it appeared to be his own advancement or aggrandizement."
"He is very brave, highly intelligent -- and arguably the most self-serving officer I've ever met," says Hunt. "It's always about Clark. Clark will never get out of the way of the issue, [whether it is] the war or whatever. It's always about him."
One manifestation of what his critics describe as arrogance is a conviction that he is right, even when he is presented with what others view as indisputable evidence of an alternative view. At times, discussions move into the realm of absurdity as Clark sticks by unsupportable claims, some of his former colleagues say.
During the war, Clark "decided atrocities were occurring" and set out to find evidence, according to one officer who served with the general. When ground traffic was spotted near a long-closed metal smelting plant, intelligence officers surmised that internally displaced civilians were simply using a covered area to get some sleep.
Clark reportedly would hear none of it, determining instead that Serbians were bringing in bodies and melting them. The NATO commander redirected overhead spy platforms to make passes over the area, the officer said. When the first pass presented no indication the smelters were in use, Clark ordered the overhead detection be continued for a week.
The smelters were never turned on, the officer said. Such a use of military assets might be relatively harmless, but commanders in other regions at the time probably did not share that view, the officer said.
"You are taking resources away from something that could have been really productive," the officer said.
Another example of Clark's tenacity is his October 1999 insistence that the bodies of 11,000 Kosovar Albanian victims of Serbian systematic killings had been recovered (ITP, Oct. 28, 1999, p1). Expert projections of the death toll from Serbian massacres sometimes reach 10,000 or 11,000. But Clark -- known for his highly emotional defense of forcing an end to the Balkan massacres -- would not accept a State Department estimate that just 1,400 bodies had been exhumed and identified as victims of ethnically motivated killings.
After more exhumations overseen by international authorities, an American Bar Association panel released an extensive report in early 2002, saying 4,211 victims' bodies had been found, based on data compiled in 2001.
Clark's "persistence" on certain issues "is sometimes a virtue and sometimes it is a flaw," Foer acknowledges. Even Clark's supporters would likely concede "he has traces" of a strong ego, Foer says.
Many active-duty and retired officers also offer anecdotes about Clark's alleged tendency to change his story, depending on the audience.
During the war, one officer recalls multiple instances of "observing him communicate one thing in one forum and then, to a different forum or a different individual, say something nearly the opposite."
This officer remembers, on several such occasions, being in a room with others while Clark was on the telephone with senior allied government officials. Clark was "quite willing to have that conversation overheard, and then once the phone was down, saying something quite different."
In relating strikingly different versions of events to different people at virtually the same time, Clark's behavior seemed "contradictory and dishonest," this officer said.
"It's ego-based," said the officer. "He was showing off. And frankly, I don't know whether the phone call reflected [Clark's] honest views on issues, or what was said after. I didn't know what to trust."
"There's a real shocker -- a leader who focuses his message to different audiences" to accomplish his overriding objective, said McCaffrey. "The reason he ended up as supreme allied commander-Europe is that our generals -- those who dealt with him -- knew he was a great leader."
Although Clark clearly played a central and pivotal role in the war, some officers related stories about how NATO's top military leader was rarely seen when the going got tough.
When a U.S. pilot accidentally bombed a convoy of Kosovar Albanian refugees moving along a road near Djakovica on April 14, 1999, Clark had NATO spokesmen do most of the explaining, officials recall. But the spokesmen quickly ran into trouble amid growing sentiment around the globe that NATO was botching the war.
"When it started going south, he was nowhere to be found," said one officer. "At a time when it was very important for the alliance and the objectives, he disappeared. . . . I was concerned we were going to stop fighting."
When controversy over the accidental killings continued to flare, Clark remained in the background, pulling the commander of the pilot's air wing off the flight line to go before the news cameras.
'A personal war between him and Milosevic'
"He was always smarter, better, more capable than anyone around him," says one officer in describing Clark's management approach.
Leading up to the war, Clark became an ardent advocate of using force to defend ethnic Albanians in Kosovo after concluding then-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic broke the promises he made in the 1995 Dayton peace accords, which the general helped negotiate.
Clark endured a number of personal humiliations at Milosevic's hands, according to military officers who served with him.
On at least two occasions, Milosevic snubbed Clark when the general came to meet with him in Belgrade, according to one officer who served under Clark at the time. In each instance, when Clark arrived at the Belgrade airport, he was prevented from getting out of his plane on the runway. Milosevic's officials insisted Clark lacked the diplomatic clearance to enter Serbia. Ultimately, he had to turn around and go back to Belgium without a meeting.
Hunt believes Clark allowed repeated snubs like this to affect his advice to political leaders and his own military decisions.
"Clark made the [Kosovo] war a personal war between him and Milosevic," Hunt says. "And it didn't work. The Albanians were largely out of Kosovo when NATO started bombing, and 80 percent of the Yugoslavian army that we bombed in Kosovo drove away at the end of the war."
Once the war was launched, the general is widely credited with keeping a fractured alliance together until the end -- a challenging feat, many say. Clark operated within a cumbersome political process in which he had to gain approval for each target from not only the White House, but all of NATO's 19 nations.
"If we ran that Kosovo thing another 1,000 times, 999 attempts would fail," McCaffrey said. "The country owes him a debt of gratitude."
Foer agrees. "His bullheadedness was worth it" in Kosovo, Foer said. "It's hard to argue with the results."
But Clark is also said to have often micromanaged details normally left to mid-ranking officers with half his experience, officials said.
For example, "Clark wrote every leaflet dropped into Serbia," one officer said. In one leaflet, Clark described Milosevic as a crook -- a tack that psychological operations specialists predicted would have little effect because the Serbian president's reputation was already well known among his people.
Clark was convinced he could read Milosevic better than anyone else, and that became a factor when the general insisted before the Kosovo war that it could be won in three days or less, many officials report. In the view of a wide range of officials and expert observers, Clark's assurances that the war would end swiftly was a key selling point in the U.S. and NATO decision to go forward (ITP, April 20, 2000, p1).
"At the beginning of the campaign, it was never envisioned to be more than two or three days, or a week at most," one NATO official told ITP a year after the war. "That's the bill of goods that the NAC [North Atlantic Council] was sold in order to buy into doing this."
Seventy-eight days after the first U.S.-led air strikes against Serbia on March 24, 1999, Serbian forces withdrew from Kosovo.
About two weeks before hostilities began, Clark was leading a daily video teleconference meeting from NATO's military headquarters in Mons, Belgium, where his senior advisers cast doubt that the war could be won as expeditiously as Clark portrayed. The emerging target plan was so timid that generals advising Clark did not believe they could compel Milosevic to surrender in a matter of days.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper, who commanded U.S. Air Forces in Europe during the war, said afterwards it was difficult to translate NATO's fragile consensus into an air war.
The war was "much less efficient than we would like to [wage], that we planned [for] and that our doctrine calls for," Jumper said in April 2000.
In fact, German Gen. Klaus Naumann, then the chairman of NATO's military committee, had secretly advised the alliance's political leaders in the months before the war that they must prepare for a prolonged conflict (ITP, April 22, 1999, p1).
In the teleconference that included hundreds of officers throughout the region, Clark emphasized every word, "slapped the table and said, 'You don't know Milosevic like I do. He will fold,'" recounted one officer who was there.
Clark has since vehemently denied that he predicted the war would end so quickly. But he does acknowledge in his book that emotions played a role for him.
"For me the war was professional, but it was also personal," Clark writes. "It was personal, because in war, you accept your responsibilities and give every ounce of your character and experience to accomplish the mission."
Yet even Clark's concept of the wartime mission itself was unclear to many of those charged with carrying it out.
"There were never any objectives established for Allied Force," said one NATO official, referring to the war. NATO primarily targeted a grab bag of Serbian military forces and security forces operating in Kosovo to little initial effect, officials say.
Behind the scenes, in secret U.S. and alliance meetings, Clark confided his personal goal was overthrowing Milosevic, officials said.
"You must understand the objective is to take Yugoslavia away from Mr. Milosevic, so that we can democratize it and modernize it. That's our objective," one NATO official quotes Clark as saying at the time.
Had that objective been presented to NATO nations as a motive for the war, the alliance would not have agreed to join in, many officers and experts agree. One officer opined this week that European anger over how the Iraq war was handled has its origins in anger over how the Kosovo war played out. French and German officials, in particular, feel Clark and the Clinton administration misrepresented the reasons behind the Kosovo war and oversold it beforehand as a virtual cakewalk.
Clark may not be the white knight he appears at first gloss, but his humanity should not be a reason to disqualify him, Foer argues. He says the political media tends to build up heroes, only to bring them down again later on.
Clark's faults are "just the flaws of an ambitious person," he says. "It doesn't mean they're fatal flaws."
"The snapshots of various points in his life are not helpful," McCaffrey told ITP. "He's brilliant, has integrity, is experienced, articulate, a great family guy and courageous field officer. That's who Wesley Clark is."
He added: "The fact that a four-star general has an ego, sometimes changes his mind and sometimes comes across as arrogant" should not be a surprise. If those were disqualifying character traits for a general, that would leave "about three of them in the last 100 years," McCaffrey quipped.
Indeed, some of Clark's former colleagues are already trumpeting his impressive record and lauding his achievements.
"I served very closely with Gen. Clark during the Kosovo operation," Jumper said at a Sept. 16 press conference. "We were in daily contact. And I can vouch for his competence as a general."
The Air Force chief added, though, that he was "not going to venture off into describing his competence in other fields, for sure."
"Gen. Clark and his wife, Gert, are great people with the passion, commitment and the energy to do wonderful things for the country," says Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, whose far-reaching concepts for reforming his own service have won accolades from some well-known Republicans, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Macgregor -- who first met Clark in 1980 and later served under him at NATO military headquarters as director of joint operations during the Kosovo war -- took pains to emphasize that his words do not constitute a political endorsement. "I'm simply talking about someone I know and like," he told ITP this week.
But, in response to Clark's announcement this week, not all the comments were positive.
"I am baffled by the fact that he's a Silver Star winner and a combat veteran with a Purple Heart from Vietnam, and how he could go from that to functioning as he did as a senior leader," said one military officer.
In Clark's memoir, "he came across as sly, cunning, manipulative and arrogant," says one longtime defense analyst who has served in the Pentagon. "Perhaps those are qualities that would be useful in a candidate or even a president. But there is not -- on the record or in the scuttlebutt -- the evidence of character and integrity that are necessary for us to entrust the nation's destiny to him."
For his part, Foer was cautious to temper his enthusiasm for Clark's political prospects with a dose of reality.
"Those of us who tend to go searching for white knight candidates realize that there's a risk in championing candidates who aren't tested politicians," he told ITP this week. "If we're self-aware, we have to admit that there's always a good chance that our romanticism has got the better of us."