Call him “Gen. Chutzpah.”
General Wesley Clark is riding high on what is universally considered his prescience about the current Iraq war. Going unremarked is his utter lack of prescience about his own war, in Kosovo in 1999.
Back then, Clark thought he had Slobodan Milosevic figured out, and that the mere threat of NATO bombing — and perhaps a day or two of the real thing — would bring him to the negotiating table and force him to be reasonable. When this turned out not to be the case, Clark had no Plan B, because President Clinton had ruled out ground troops from the outset.
So, NATO continued with a limp air campaign that was inadequate to stopping Milosevic’s ethnic-cleansing campaign, that appalled other members of the military brass who thought Clark had helped drag the U.S. into a near-fiasco, and that led to such ill-feeling toward Clark in the Pentagon that he was fired at war’s end, launching his career as a TV pundit.
In his memoir, Clark recounts a conversation with Gen. Joseph Ralston before the war that starkly demonstrates his flawed assumptions. Ralston wants to know what will happen if the threat of an air campaign doesn’t work:
“Well, it will work,” I said. “I know [Milosevic] as well as anyone. And it gives the diplomats the leverage they need.”
“OK, but let’s just say it doesn’t. What will we do?” he asked.
“Well, then we’ll bomb. We’ll have to follow through,” I said.
“And what if the bombing doesn’t work?”
“I think that’s unlikely, but in that event, I guess we’d have to do something on the ground, directed at Kosovo.”
“And if that doesn’t work?” he persisted.
“Well, then we keep going. But I think you have to work at the front end of the policy, on how to make it effective. Besides, I know Milosevic; he doesn’t want to get bombed.”
Clark insisted: “‘I can’t believe that Milosevic won’t sign, when the crunch comes. He always holds out. He has to be leaned on very hard. But he will come around.”
Of course, Milosevic didn’t. Even when the bombing campaign began, Clark made threats that had no connection to the amount of force NATO was willing to bring to bear. Clark said NATO would, “systematically attack, disrupt, degrade, devastate, and ultimately destroy” Yugoslavia’s military and security forces. Uh, no it wouldn’t — partly because everyone believed, like Clark, in the rosy scenario.
Ivo H. Daalder and Michael E. O’Hanlon write in their balanced account of the war, Winning Ugly: “NATO did not expect a long war. Worse, it did not even prepare for the possibility. Many alliance leaders deny that assertion to this day, but the evidence is overwhelming. And the blame begins with Washington, ultimately the most important architect of the air campaign strategy.”
And so NATO stumbled on. “In short order,” Andrew Bacevich writes in American Empire, “it became clear that Clark — though not he alone — had miscalculated. A defiant Milosevic did not fold. The first several days’ bombing succeeded only in stoking the fires of Serb nationalism and providing Belgrade with the excuse to accelerate its ethnic cleansing of Kosovo.”
To Clark’s credit, he pushed for a ground option, but for everyone else in Washington it was a nonstarter, because no one thought it worth the risk in a war in which the American national interest was so attenuated.
Things turned out in the end, of course. But one million refugees later, and only because one of Gen. Clark’s subordinates, Gen. Michael C. Short, did an end run around Clark to institute an increasingly aggressive bombing campaign against Belgrade. By the end, Bacevich writes, “Clark found his control over ongoing operations eroding. Rather than the theater commander, he became hardly more than a kibitzer.”
Something to keep in mind the next time — and it will be soon — you hear about Wes Clark’s prescience.
— Rich Lowry is author of the upcoming Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.