Former NATO Commander Wesley Clark will formally announce his candidacy for president of the United States in Little Rock on Wednesday. The retired general's entrance into the crowded field of Democrats is seen as a way to counter President George W. Bush's advantage as a wartime leader in next year's election. Given some of Clark's comments in interviews, such as his claim that "progressive taxation" was one of America's founding principles, we can conclude that domestic policy is not his strong suite. But even with Clark's military credentials, history is working against him.
Only George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower were successful as both generals and presidents. Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor enjoyed military success, but their presidencies were hardly unalloyed triumphs. And of course, what can be said about the presidency of the unfortunate Ulysses S. Grant, the most successful general of the Civil War?
His partisans claim that like previous general-presidents, Clark presided over an American victory. But can we really compare his role in the war in Kosovo to that of Washington, Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower?
Clark, who was both commander of NATO and commander of U.S. troops in Europe, faced unprecedented problems in executing the war in Kosovo. First and most important, NATO members were unable to agree on the goals of the war, the strategy, and the extent of force that could be brought to bear against Slobodan Milosevic. NATO's civilian leaders entered into the war expecting that it would end quickly
Second, the civilian leaders undercut the coercive potential of the means they chose by declaring at the outset how limited the campaign would be. President Clinton announced that NATO would not use ground forces, and NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana stated that the air campaign would last only "days, not months."
Finally, Clark had to deal with an administration that, for whatever reason, did not fully trust him and a military establishment that did not support himindeed, arguably did what it could to undercut him. He was never invited to a strategy discussion with either the secretary of defense or the president in the months and weeks leading up to the Kosovo campaign.
In his memoir, Waging Modern War, Clark writes that his relationship with his Washington counterparts was so bad that Secretary of Defense William Cohen and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army General Hugh Shelton, conspired to keep him away from the NATO summit meeting in Washington during the war. He attended anyway, but was ostracized at a reception by the president, Secretary of State Madeline Albright, Cohen, and Shelton. As he approached their receiving line, several glanced at him. "'Stay away' was the clear message from the body language. It was jarring."
President Clinton, of course, was not interested in foreign affairs, preferring to focus on domestic politics. Unfortunately for him, events in the international arena did not cooperate. Almost from the beginning of his first term, Clinton found he could run but he couldn't hide from events overseas. This forced him to focus on that part of his job as president in which he had the least interest and the least competence.
On top of this, Clinton foreign policy team was one of the weakest in the history of the Republicsome have described it as the Carter Administration's third string. Most of the civilian policy makers in the Clinton Administration had cut their teeth in the anti-war movement of the 1960s. Yet over time, many became advocates of military intervention and the use of force to prevent human rights abuses.
Accordingly, the officer corps did not trust Clinton or his foreign policy team. Even those too young to remember Vietnam thought that these "hawkish" civilians who were so eager to involve them in conflicts abroad would abandon the military if the going got tough, leaving the soldiers to twist in the wind as the military believed the civilians had done during Vietnam.
While much of the blame for the America's lackluster performance in Kosovo can be attributed to the Clinton Administration, Clark himself was also culpable. The fact is that Clark shared the Clinton Administration's rosy view concerning the use of force against Milosevic, believing as those in Washington did that he would fold if threatened with bombing, or to a short air campaign if the threat did not work.
Thus Clark refused to make the unambiguous choice to use decisive force. He did not object to the European preference for cruise missile "drive-by shootings." If NATO countries, he wrote in Waging Modern War, "wanted to fire a few cruise missiles to make a political statement, did I have the right to say they couldn't?"
As a result, Clark had no alternative plan in the event that the first course of action failed. Consider this remarkable exchange from Waging Modern War, in which he recounts a conversation with the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Ralston, before the war. Ralston wanted to know what would happen if the threat of an air campaign failed to get Milosevic to give in to NATO's demands on Kosovo.
"Well, it will work," I said. "I know [Milosevic] as well as anyone. And it gives the diplomats the leverage they need."
"OK, but let's just say it doesn't. What will we do?" he asked.
"Well, then we'll bomb. We'll have to follow through," I said.
"And what if the bombing doesn't work?"
"I think that's unlikely, but in that event, I guess we'd have to do something on the ground, directed at Kosovo."
"And if that doesn't work?" he persisted.
"Well, then we keep going. But I think you have to work at the front end of the policy, on how to make it effective. Besides, I know Milosevic; he doesn't want to get bombed…. I can't believe that Milosevic won't sign, when the crunch comes. He always holds out. He has to be leaned on very hard. But he will come around."
Clark either forgot or ignored Clausewitz's observation that "the art of war deals with living and with moral forces. Consequently, it cannot attain the absolute, or certainty; it must always leave a margin for uncertainty, in the greatest of things as much as in the smallest." This is because "war is not the action of a living body on a lifeless mass...but always the collision of two living forces."
Clark developed a plan that depended on the cooperation of the enemy and then failed to provide a backup. But as Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the Prussian General Staff during the wars of German unification, observed
...no plan of operation extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force. Only the layman thinks that he can see in the course of the campaign the consequent execution of the original idea with all the details thought out in advance and adhered to until the very end.
The commander, wrote Moltke in a riff on Clausewitz, must keep his objective in mind,
undisturbed by the vicissitudes of events. But the path on which he hopes to reach it can never be firmly established in advance. Throughout the campaign he must make a series of decisions on the basis of situations that cannot be foreseen. The successive acts of war are thus not premeditated designs, but on the contrary are spontaneous acts guided by military measures. Everything depends on penetrating the uncertainty of veiled situations to evaluate the facts, to clarify the unknown, to make decisions rapidly, and then to carry them out with strength and constancy.
Once the bombing began, Clark compounded the problem by bluffing, making threats that NATO had neither the desire nor capability to carry outto "systematically attack, disrupt, degrade, devastate, and ultimately destroy" Yugoslavia's military and security forces.
Of course, after 77 days, Milosevic did agree to sign the Rambouillet agreements, making it possible for NATO to declare "victory." But the cost was high: thousands of dead Kosovars and nearly a million refugees; widespread destruction in both Serbia and Kosovo; and the potential destabilization of the southern Balkans.
It is troubling to realize that the Clark's approach almost failed against a fifth-rate military power and was just about to unravel when, for reasons that are still unclear, Milosevic threw in the towel. This is why we should consider Wes Clark to be a serious candidate for president?