Wes Clark won a war, but ran afoul of his Pentagon masters and lost his job. Here's how.
A NEWSWEEK exclusive By Evan Thomas and T. Trent Gegax
Newsweek Feb. 2 issue -
One of the most damning charges against retired Gen. Wesley Clark has also been the vaguest. After Clark entered the Democratic race last September, Gen. Hugh Shelton, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that Clark had been sacked as commander of NATO forces after the 1999 Balkans war because of 'integrity and character issues.' Shelton has refused to comment further, and Clark's civilian boss, the then Defense Secretary William Cohen, has also remained silent.
The doubts raised by Clark's own bosses have cast an uneasy pall over his presidential candidacy. What really happened? According to a knowledgeable source, Clark ran afoul of Cohen and Shelton by being less than totally forthcoming in morning conference calls during the Kosovo war in the spring of 1999. From his NATO headquarters in Brussels, Clark wanted to wage the war more aggressively, but back in the Pentagon, Cohen and Shelton were more cautious. They would give Clark instructions on, for instance, the scale of the bombing campaign. "Clark would say, 'Uh-huh, gotcha'," says Newsweek's source. But then he would pick up the phone and call [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair and [Secretary of State] Madeleine [Albright]." As Clark knew full well, Blair and Albright were more hawkish than Shelton and Cohen. After talking to the State Department and NATO allies, Clark would have a different set of marching orders, says the source, who has spoken about the matter with both Cohen and Clark. "Then, about 1 o'clock, the Defense Department would hear what Clark was up to, and Cohen and Shelton would be furious."
Was Clark going around them? Not really. As NATO commander, Clark says, "I wore two hats." He reported to Washington, but also to America's European allies. And within the U.S. government, he was within his authority to seek guidance from the State Department and certainly from the White House, as well as from his nominal bosses at the Pentagon.
"I was forthcoming," Clark insisted. "If [Cohen and Shelton] gave me an instruction, I did it. I would never have not done what they told me to do. But the truth is, they weren't in touch with the situation well enough to tell me everything to do. It's why you have the title supreme allied commander... The buck usually stopped on my desk... I had, by necessity, a certain independence. Yet no matter how many times I tried to bring Hugh Shelton and Washington to understand the allied side, it didn't compute. They just didn't see it." General Shelton, Clark's aides are quick to note, is now listed as an unpaid adviser to the John Edwards campaign.