The General Unease With Wesley Clark
America became intimate with its generals during the first Gulf War, when Colin L. Powell and H. Norman Schwarzkopf entered millions of households via CNN. The two men, though both quite popular, could not have been more different.
Powell was photogenic and polished, an American success story. He was a general in the most modern sense, with political and leadership abilities as refined as his military cunning. “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf was a battlefield guy. Known for impolitic outbursts, he was a soldier’s soldier, with unlimited loyalty to his troops.
Now we’re getting to know a third Army general, Wesley K. Clark, who announced his candidacy for president in September. It remains to be seen how much support Clark, who ended his military career commanding NATO forces in Kosovo, can drum up from the electorate. But his campaign has so far been met with a surprising lack of support from his former colleagues in the military. Several of his onetime Pentagon bosses have publicly declared that they will not support him. Those declarations have pointed up one of the candidate’s major liabilities: Too many of those who have worked with him can’t stand him.
The first of the prominent Clark detractors was retired Army Gen. Henry “Hugh” Shelton, Clark’s last boss and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Shelton was asked whether he would support Clark during a question-and-answer session after a September lecture in California. “I’ve known Wes for a long time,” Shelton said. “I will tell you the reason he came out of Europe early had to do with integrity and character issues.... I’ll just say Wes won’t get my vote.” Shelton has declined to elaborate.
After Shelton’s remark, William S. Cohen, secretary of Defense during Clark’s time in Kosovo, had this to say to CNN about why Clark was removed from his European post three months earlier than planned: “There was friction between Gen. Clark and myself.... I felt that the ax, as such, when it fell, spoke for itself.” Then came Gen. Dennis Reimer, the senior Army officer when Clark retired and also a member of the Joint Chiefs. Clark, he said, “focused too much upward and not down on the soldiers.” In military circles, that is considered a major liability for a commander.
Clark said he and Shelton had had “professional disagreements, and obviously for him they became personal.” Later, he noted that Shelton’s “smear” was more understandable if one considered that Shelton was an informal advisor to fellow North Carolinian Sen. John Edwards, like Clark a Democratic presidential contender.
Clark has not specifically responded to Cohen or Reimer, though the campaign’s release of 178 pages of military records and evaluations -- most of his straight-A report cards going back to his West Point days -- is supposed to show that the general wouldn’t have been awarded four stars unless his superiors had thought very highly of him.
To be fair to Clark, he and Shelton did have one enormous “professional disagreement.” Clark pushed for U.S. involvement in the Kosovo conflict in 1999, even arguing for a full-scale ground war. Shelton -- along with much of the Army leadership -- believed that Yugoslavia was not sufficiently important to America’s vital interests to justify a major engagement of U.S. forces.
It is still unclear why Shelton became suspicious of Clark’s “integrity.” Contrary to what some have asserted, Clark was not operating through a back channel to the White House. Shelton was always Clark’s primary point of contact with policymakers. Shelton, Cohen and others did become frustrated with Clark’s fervent belief in the Kosovo cause, worrying that his advocacy clouded his military judgment.
Part of the trouble might have been that if Clark was a true believer, he served a secretary of Defense who believed in remaining neutral on matters of foreign policy. A Republican serving in a Democratic administration, Cohen carefully avoided activism, seeing his job as implementing rather than making policy. In 2000, when Clark was recalled from his NATO post three months before he was scheduled to retire, the Pentagon gave the lame excuse that he was being relieved to make way for another general who had to assume the position in order not to retire. But the subtext was clear. Cohen couldn’t stand Clark and wanted his own man in the job. He achieved that by appointing Joseph W. Ralston, then vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Ralston was Cohen’s main advisor and ally in the Pentagon and today works with Cohen as vice chairman of the Cohen Group consulting company.
The criticisms by Reimer, Cohen and Shelton clearly stem, in part, from their having disagreed with Clark over matters of policy. But high-ranking defense officials have disagreements all the time and don’t always develop such strong dislikes. Do the criticisms cast any real light on whether Clark would be a good president? Perhaps.
The difference between Clark and the other generals who’ve become household names -- Schwarzkopf and Powell -- is that the others both engendered strong loyalties. Schwarzkopf was revered by the men and women he commanded, Powell by the leaders he served. Powell, like Clark, was a political general, and yet he was widely respected by both those above and below him in the hierarchy.
Clark too had his strong admirers, most prominent his commander in chief, President Clinton. But he also had prominent detractors, including his three primary military bosses.
“Personalities are important factors in history and military affairs, even though we don’t like to admit it,” Clark wrote in his book “Waging Modern War.” They are a factor in presidential races as well.