Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
November 16, 2003
POLITICS: Unfit to be Commander-In-Chief?
Tom Maguire pointed me to this devastating New Yorker profile of Wesley Clark and his Kosovo record. There were a few interesting tidbits in the first half of the piece, which generally paints Clark as an admirable guy: I didn't know that was ethnically Jewish (his stepfather changed his name from Kanne) and had converted to Catholicism (combined with being raised a Southern Baptist, this gives him a real smorgasbord of religious background), or that Clark had first met Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld when he was detailed to the Ford White House. The account of the Kosovo campaign also includes some amusing tidbits:
When [Madeliene] Albright flew to Rambouillet [the site in France where negotiations were held between Milosevic and Albanian Kosovar leaders] in the hope that her presence might help to move things along, the Albanian delegation, working late at night, mistook her for a cleaning woman and told her to go away.
To which I ask: wasn't she traveling with security? The article also strongly suggests that Clark basically ran US policy in the Balkans without supervision while Clinton was distracted by impeachment, which of course reflects badly on Clinton moreso than on Clark.
Anyway, the real importance here is the damning picture painted of Clark's failings as a general:
*Clark in Kosovo did exactly what the Democrats accused Bush and Rumsfeld of: he projected a best-case scenario and went to war without a plan B:
[Prior to negotiations,] Clark had assured the White House that Milosevic would acquiesce, but the Serbian leader did not, and the talks ended in March.
“If you look back at the basics of it,” one Clinton Defense Department official recalls, “Wes’s strongly held view was ‘If we just threaten to bomb, he’ll fold, I know this guy. This won’t last forty-eight hours.’” . . .
President Clinton had publicly ruled out sending ground troops into the Balkans . . . More than once, [Air Force General Michael Short] came close to quitting his command in frustration. Short had complained to Clark about the lack of targets, but Clark assured him, “This will be over in three nights.”
NATO was unprepared for even this restricted version of war. There were no American aircraft carriers nearby when the war began, and only a third of the aircraft that would eventually be required. Milosevic had positioned his forces on the Kosovo border, and when the bombing commenced they swept into the province and dispersed, thus avoiding the long-distance strikes of the nato bombers. As the Serbs moved in, the Albanian Kosovars moved out, nearly emptying the country in an exodus to the hills, and subsequently posing a humanitarian crisis in the neighboring states of Albania and Macedonia.
When Milosevic refused to fold after just a few days of bombing, the NATO bombers quickly ran out of approved targets, and were failing to destroy, or even to seriously erode, the Serb force inside Kosovo. . .
Thus, not only did Clark rely too heavily on an over-optimistic assessment of the chances of a swift victory; he was also wrong.
*Clark was massively insubordinate, constantly looking to work around direct orders by appealing up the chain of command. I know they do this constantly in the movies, but this can't be a good thing in the real Army, and I suspect it's what Gen. Hugh Shelton meant about Clark's "integrity" issues. Consider the vignette where Clark has dinner with Tony Blair to sell him on a ground invasion that the Clinton Administration has already publicly and privately vetoed: a uniformed officer lobbying a foreign head of state to change his own country's policy?
*The Pentagon had to leak Clark's firing to the papers to stop him from appealing outside the chain of command yet again.
*Or consider this horrifying assessment of Clark's plans for a ground invasion:
Clark continued to focus on preparations for a ground war, and the plan he ultimately proposed was greeted in Washington with astonishment. "Gallipoli springs to mind," one defense expert, who made a study of Clark's plan, says. Clark advocated an invasion of Kosovo with a force of two hundred thousand troops, mostly American. The force would move into Kosovo through Albania, because Macedonia had declared that it would not allow its territory to be used for launching an attack. Aside from the most obvious difficulty with Clark's plan-that a major American-led ground invasion in the Balkans could not win the support of Congress, the Pentagon, the White House, or nato-there was a real problem regarding Albania. The country was already in chaos, and had almost no infrastructure. There was only one major road, and it was only partly paved, and there were few bridges that could support the mammoth tanks and fighting vehicles of the American Army. . . Clark outlined the plan to the Joint Chiefs in a video-teleconference, and they were starkly unsupportive. Dennis Reimer, the Army Chief of Staff, made it clear that he considered Clark's plan ludicrous. General Shelton refused to go forward with any real planning for the invasion. A Clinton Defense official recalls, 'Any of those elements of his most expansive plan would have, in our view and in the view of a number of thinking people, derailed what was a fairly fragile situation. And, in the judgment of many, many military professionals, it wouldn't have worked anyway. It called into question the real military judgment being put behind it.'
Fred Kaplan, the resident military analyst in Slate's stable of left-leaning pundits, tries gamely to defend Clark. Kaplan argues that the piece gives only the views of Clark's (numerous) critics in the military, but of course the sheer number of senior officials with an axe to grind against Clark has to be taken seriously when you consider that his long military career is virtually his only credential for public office. Kaplan thinks the New Yorker unfairly attacks Clark for being pig-headedly "certain about the rightness of his views," but then that's also a common complaint by the Clarkniks about Bush&Co.; if Clark's the same way, why should we expect the promised new and improved diplomacy and tact we've been promised?
Kaplan does convince me that the New Yorker piece misrepresents Clark's influence on Clinton Administration policy -- but as I noted above, that implication isn't as damaging to Clark as to his bosses anyway. Kaplan argues that the war on Kosovo was a good idea anyway -- but for a campaign that has argued relentlessly that the problem was how Bush got us into the Iraq war, the "how" of Kosovo is certainly a relevant question.
The bottom line here, and one Kaplan admits to, is that the New Yorker piece shows Clark as a guy who showed poor judgment in assessing an adversary he loudly proclaimed to know and understand:
Clearly, Clark made mistakes. Like many, he thought that merely threatening Milosevic with airstrikes would make him back down; after that didn't work, he thought three nights of bombing would crack his resistance. (The bombing campaign lasted 11 weeks.) But Clark was far from alone in this miscalculation; Clinton and Albright shared it.
Bad, but no worse than Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright. Some defense.