View Full Version : Clark Papers Talk Politics And War

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02-07-2004, 01:14 AM

Clark Papers Talk Politics And War
General Cites Pressure Over Kosovo Conflict
By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 7, 2004; Page A01

Some top Clinton administration officials wanted to end the Kosovo war abruptly in the summer of 1999, at almost any cost, because the presidential campaign of then-Vice President Al Gore was about to begin, former NATO commander Gen. Wesley K. Clark says in his official papers.

"There were those in the White House who said, 'Hey, look, you gotta finish the bombing before the Fourth of July weekend. That's the start of the next presidential campaign season, so stop it. It doesn't matter what you do, just turn it off. You don't have to win this thing, let it lie,' " Clark said in a January 2000 interview with NATO's official historian, four months before leaving the post of supreme allied commander Europe.

In his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Clark has repeatedly made his conduct of the war a central theme, arguing that his leadership skills and experience in building coalitions with allies make him better suited for the White House than President Bush. He made the papers from his 34-month tenure as NATO's top military officer available in response to a request by The Washington Post.

The papers document that throughout the war, Clark was frequently at odds with top officials in the Clinton administration, including senior officers in the Pentagon, and that he was deeply skeptical that Washington was making good policy. "I know this region a whole lot better than a lot of these guys back in Washington do," Clark said in one private interview.

In describing White House pressure to end the war for political reasons, Clark did not name the officials involved or state how he knew about it. He described the pressures while detailing for the historical record the conflict's frenetic final months, when many in Washington openly worried it was dragging on too long and Clark was among a few officials urging escalating NATO's role in the war.

But on June 10, 1999, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic -- under pressure from NATO's bombardment and Russia's withdrawal of political support -- capitulated to the West's demands for the pullout of all Serbian forces and the deployment of Western peacekeepers in Kosovo, a major and continuing NATO engagement.

That was the day Clark had privately identified as his deadline for formally recommending an escalation of the bombing campaign instead of launching a ground war involving tens of thousands of troops -- a plan he knew would give Washington pause, according to the papers. "Whether they would have fired me or not, I don't know, but it would have been pretty nasty," he told the NATO historian, according to an interview transcript in the National Defense University's special collections library in Washington.

No attempt by Clinton administration officials to manipulate the timing of the war's end was reported at the time. But this week, Clark confirmed through Jamie P. Rubin, a Clark campaign adviser who was a spokesman for then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, that he stands by his account of the pressures.

Rubin added that Clark, who was campaigning in Tennessee, could not immediately recall further details of the episode.

Asked about Clark's account, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, the national security adviser to President Clinton at the time, called Clark a friend but said any implication that the White House was prepared to hurry the end of the war for political reasons was "categorically and completely false."

"The White House was totally committed to victory in Kosovo, no matter how long it took or what it took," he said.

A former senior administration official, however, said Clark might have been referring to a Washington meeting of top policymakers in late spring at which Gore allegedly expressed concern that the war might interfere with his campaign. Gore formally announced his candidacy one week after the war ended, on June 16, 1999.

Gore, through a spokesman, declined to comment directly. Leon Feurth, his national security adviser at the time, said that politics were not discussed at White House national security meetings, and that while Gore opposed preparing for a ground war, he supported continuing the bombing as long as necessary to win. Gore "was prepared to take a political hit" on such issues, Feurth said.

In his papers, Clark made clear that he frequently urged a harder line than Washington and its allies preferred, accusing the Defense Department at one point of urging "a sellout" in 1998 negotiations over a plan to begin international monitoring of Serbian activities in Kosovo. Berger, Clark said, believed at the time that the risks posed by those actions were "not real" and favored a weak solution.

"That's the flavor of it. 'It's not like this is a really serious problem.' It's like, 'Hey, let's jerk this guy's [Milosevic's] chain.' [Then,] 'Okay, we can't stand [it] anymore, it's too embarrassing politically,' " Clark said, adding: "I don't take it that way. I take it as a very serious threat to European security."

"All along, I always had a terrible feeling about Milosevic, that we were really sort of making a compromise with Hitler in 1943," Clark said. He expressed particular regret that both Washington and Europe had failed to intervene against Yugoslavia in the summer of 1998, when, he said, Milosevic had timed a campaign of ethnic cleansing to coincide with Western officials' summer vacations.

Berger disputed Clark's account of his views, calling it "garbled hearsay that is just incorrect," because "I was a strong advocate of action on Kosovo."

Clark told the historian that he chafed during the war at having to submit individual bombing targets to the White House and the French government for approval. He said Clinton reviewed them directly, apparently because of embarrassment over the U.S. military's 1998 bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. He also quoted a deputy French defense minister as acknowledging that Paris rejected some of his target choices simply for the sake of "saying no."

Clark said his reaction was to ask for approval to bomb "more than you expect" to get.

He was scathing in his papers, as he was in a book he wrote in 2001 about the Pentagon's refusal toward the end of the war to endorse his use of Apache helicopters to attack Serbian ground forces. "The Army didn't want to be involved because they were afraid of being embarrassed or afraid of taking risks or whatever," Clark said. "The Navy didn't have a dog in the fight but [wasn't] too interested. And the Air Force, well, they would support me, but then they sent their henchmen down to make sure the [Apaches] would never fly."

Clark denigrated criticism of his plan as "all hype and [expletive]" and told the historian that even Clinton was unwilling to listen to his advice. During the president's visit to Brussels on May 5, 1999, "he's sitting next to me, and he says, 'Well, I guess the Apaches are too high-risk to use.' I said, 'No, Mr. President, they aren't.' Boy, he didn't want to hear that! He turned his head away . . . and that was the end of the discussion."

In early June 1999, after negotiations had finally begun to end the war, Clark told then-U.S. Ambassador to NATO Sandy Vershbow that "the Pentagon is pushing for any way out, pushing for a softer line, get us out, save money," according to a transcript of the telephone conversation in his papers.

"I think there was a lot of animus at the time," Clark later told the historian. "People knew I was fighting this thing [an early draft of the cease-fire agreement] . . . as it was being dragged to the conclusion, because I felt we were giving too much away. And what was coming from Washington was, get an agreement at any price."

The papers also shed new light on Clark's role in a notorious incident of rekindled East-West tensions immediately after a cease-fire agreement was reached with Yugoslavia. The episode involved a small contingent of Russian peacekeeping troops stationed in Bosnia outracing NATO forces in Macedonia to gain control over the main airport in Pristina.

Clark told aides at the time that he was worried the Russians would leverage their control to block NATO's deployment or demand a de facto partition of Kosovo. He also was concerned -- according to a transcript of his conversations during the crisis -- that the professed ignorance of Russian political officials about the move possibly meant that "we're dealing with a military takeover of the government in Russia."

He told NATO Secretary General Javier Solana that "Washington used the word 'coup' to me," but he made clear he could not confirm it.

Urged by senior U.S. officials to respond forcefully, Clark ordered British Gen. Mike Jackson, then under his command, to land British helicopters and station armored personnel carriers at the airport to block the Russians. The British general refused, saying he had no desire to start World War III.

Clark told the historian he was unperturbed by the unlikely prospect of a direct clash once the British forces pushed the Russian vehicles with their own. "Yes, they could shoot. When they shoot, we're gonna shoot. And guess what, there's a lot more of us than there are of them, " Clark said, recounting his feelings at the time. "So my guess is, they're not gonna shoot!"

There was no coup, of course. And Jackson, with Clark's backing, defused the crisis by offering "to kill [the Russians] with niceness, welcome them aboard." The West forced Moscow to share the airport by prevailing on the Romanian and Bulgarian governments to block any air reinforcement or resupply of the Russian troops.

Clark's papers include a warm letter from William S. Cohen, the secretary of defense at the time, praising the general for his efforts during the crisis. But Cohen, who resented Clark's independent attitudes, forced him out of the job months before Clark intended to leave.