Warrior's Rewards

Gen. Wesley Clark, supreme Allied Commander in Europe, waged and won NATO's campaign for Kosovo without losing a single soldier in action. For the U.S. military, the victory was uniquely--historically--bloodless. Last week Clark learned it was also thankless.

In a midnight call from Washington, Clark was told he'd be relieved of his command at NATO next April, a few months earlier than he'd anticipated. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Hugh Shelton, presented the decision as a simple matter of giving the post to another deserving officer. Clark, who got the call in the middle of a quick trip to the Baltic republics, was caught off balance. He'd seen Shelton in the United States just the week before. Not a word had been breathed of his replacement. According to one source privy to the conversation, Clark told Shelton the move would be read as a vote of no-confidence in his leadership.

Shelton, brisk and businesslike, said there was no way around it. His replacement--Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff--would be forced by law to retire if he weren't given a new slot by April. Clark wasn't buying it. In two conversations that night and again the next day, sources say, he argued that his replacement would be a blow to U.S. efforts to reshape NATO. Shelton wasn't moved. Clark, the 54-year-old warrior, was going to have to step aside for Ralston, the 55-year-old Washington insider.

To salt the wound, news that Clark was leaving early was leaked to The Washington Post within an hour of Shelton's first call. The next day, the White House tried to make nice, heaping praise on Clark's record. Defense Secretary William Cohen suggested, vaguely, that there might be an ambassadorship in the offing. But the equivalent of a gold watch and a pat on the back did little to disguise the insult. "A slap in the face," said one senior European official at NATO headquarters in Brussels. Albanians and Kosovars felt they'd lost a national hero. The French daily Le Monde said Clark was treated "like a bum." Yet, for all that, official Washington had few regrets. "It was botched in the handling, but it's the right decision," a senior administration official told NEWSWEEK.

The irony is not only that Clark won the war and lost his job; he won the war without fighting it the way he wanted to. Overruled by the White House, he was not able to bomb as early, or as massively, as he thought necessary. He always believed ground troops had to be ready to move into action, but they never were. Clark had wanted the U.S. Army, of which he is a general, to be involved. But when Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic finally folded after 78 days of bombing--and bombing alone--that seemed to prove the wisdom of those who had opposed Clark's "hip-shooter" recommendations.

Ralston will be only the second Air Force officer to hold NATO's top command. That fact was noted in the alliance's Brussels headquarters, where it fueled a sense that the United States has lost its will to fight on the ground. "What does this say about the U.S. military's commitment?" asked one senior NATO staffer. "Commitment to what? To keeping the Army healthy and out of combat?"

Yet the core problem was at least as much one of personality as of doctrine. Since his days at West Point, Clark has been something of a loner. (His favorite sport was long-distance swimming. He still tries to work out in the pool every day: lap after arduous lap, oblivious to the outside world.) Clark gloried in being the lone warrior, the take-no-prisoners intellectual. "It's very difficult to stop this ambitious man," said one of his European peers during the war. His colleagues might admire and envy Clark, but few actually liked him.

Ralston has been a more conventional officer and gentleman, so well regarded that back in 1997 he was expected to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs. But an adulterous affair Ralston had a decade before, while separated from his wife, came to light. That was just as the Air Force was agonizing over the way Lt. Kelly Flynn, the first woman B-52 pilot, had played around, got caught, lied about it and got fired. Ralston decided it was prudent to step aside. But he soldiered on as vice chairman, and was such an effective insider that during the Kosovo crisis Ralston had, in many ways, more day-to-day influence on the administration's handling of the war than Shelton. "A choice between losing Ralston to retirement or asking Clark to give up his post two months early?'' said a White House source. "That's a no-brainer."

Should Clark have been surprised to be shown the door? He rubbed even his admirers the wrong way. Subordinates wearied of his high-pressure attention to minute detail. A European NATO officer who worked closely with Clark remembered him during the air war "with his little laptop being able to see all the aircraft maneuvering in the air war." As another NATO veteran put it, "He does get in people's knickers to some extent." When Clark was assigned to work with an old West Point classmate, he suggested that since they might compete for promotions they should put their friendship on hold.

Clark's fights with other NATO commanders were legendary. Early in the conflict, he ordered up a task force of Apache tank-busting helicopter gunships, after going to the White House over the protests of the U.S. Army chief of staff, Gen. Dennis Reimer. The Army dragged its feet and took nearly a month just to reach the theater--and never did fire a missile in anger. At the end of the war, Clark was so anxious to stop the Russians from stealing a march to Pristina airport that he ordered an airborne assault to take the field before them. But Gen. Mike Jackson, the British commander on the ground in Kosovo, wouldn't carry out Clark's orders. Subsequently, a frustrated Clark asked Adm. James Ellis Jr., the American officer in charge of NATO's Southern Command, to order helicopters to land on the runways so big Russian Ilyushin transports couldn't use them. Ellis balked, saying Jackson wouldn't like it. "I'm not going to start World War III for you," Jackson later told Clark. Both Jackson and Clark appealed to their political leadership back home for support. Jackson got all the help he needed; Clark didn't. Effectively, his orders as Supreme Commander were overruled.

Clark still has his fans at NATO headquarters. It was Clark who balanced the demands and misgivings of 19 nations and armies through 78 long days. That showed a great political touch; indeed, Wesley Clark may be too much of a politician for some soldiers--even if he is too much of a soldier for the politicians. During the Kosovo war, that made him "the perfect man for the job," said a top NATO official. When the war was over, it also made him the perfect man to dump.