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U.S.: Former NATO Commander Joins Presidential Race

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Retired U.S. General Wesley Clark helped lead diplomatic efforts to end the first Bosnian war and guided NATO's 1999 campaign in Kosovo as the alliance's supreme commander. Now, the former Oxford scholar wants to be elected America's commander in chief to replace President George W. Bush in the White House.

Washington, 18 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Former NATO commander Wesley Clark -- with no experience in electoral politics but with lifelong service in the U.S. Army -- is seeking the Democratic Party's nomination for president of the United States in 2004.

The retired four-star general made his announcement yesterday to a crowd of supporters in his hometown:

"My name is Wes Clark. I am from Little Rock, Arkansas. And I am here to announce that I intend to seek the presidency of the United States of America."

A top Pentagon war planner with a noted academic record, Clark rose to prominence in 1999 when he led NATO's bombing of Kosovo as the alliance's supreme commander after helping guide diplomatic efforts to stop the 1992-1995 Bosnian war.

Clark -- who hails from the same southern state as former President Bill Clinton -- grabbed headlines last year when he cautioned Washington against going to war with Iraq without full UN approval.

He repeated to reporters yesterday his belief that the Iraq campaign was a "purely elective war" that did not need to be waged now.

Political observers say Clark's military and diplomatic experience give him credibility to take on Bush, whom many Americans see as strong on security and defense at a time when the country feels threatened by international terrorism.

Patrick Basham is a domestic political analyst with the Cato Institute, a policy-research group in Washington:

"Unlike many of the Democratic candidates who don't have foreign policy or military experience, Wesley Clark has a record which will beat anyone, and [he] can speak from real-world experience about how military, defense, [and] national security issues actually play out in the field."

But Clark is a late entry into the race for the Democratic nomination. Nine other candidates have been campaigning for months, raising millions of dollars, getting important media coverage, and organizing in key states.

Analysts say this could prove to be a major disadvantage to Clark, even if no Democratic candidate besides former Vermont Governor Howard Dean has begun to look like a favorite and most Democratic voters remain undecided.

Basham says the key will be Clark's ability to raise funds to finance a nationwide campaign: "He would have to show incredible fund-raising prowess very, very quickly, partly to show the [Democratic] Party that he can do it, but more importantly, to actually have the manpower to get his vote out."

Clark will not be starting entirely from nothing. He has attracted strong grassroots support on the Internet, and a website dedicated to Clark's candidacy has gathered pledges of more than $1.3 million, which will be turned over to him.

Media reports say he has also met with film director Steven Spielberg -- a sign he may have lined up Hollywood cash for his campaign.

Clark has also put together a campaign team made up of many of the political operatives who engineered Clinton's rise from Arkansas governor to U.S. president.

Yesterday, Clark portrayed himself as a centrist who could appeal to voters on both the left and right who want a change in American leadership.

"Why has America lost 2.7 million jobs? Why has America lost the prospect of a $5 trillion surplus and turned it into a $5 trillion deficit that deepens every day? Why has America lost the respect of so many people around the world?"

Dean, seen as the current top Democratic candidate, has sparked interest in his candidacy because of his criticism of the Iraq war. But many say that Dean, a former medical doctor, lacks the military and foreign policy credentials to stand up to Bush on security issues.

Dean and Clark acknowledge they have met several times already to discuss the issues. Dean has reportedly asked Clark to be his vice-presidential running mate should he win the nomination. Such a move would bolster Dean's standing on security and defense and also lend credibility to his antiwar stance.

In testimony last September before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, Clark did not hesitate to challenge Bush on Iraq. He urged the administration not to rush to war and instead to concentrate on fighting Al-Qaeda and building America's alliances with other nations in the war on terrorism.

It was a position shared by many top military officers, as opposed to the Pentagon's civilian leaders. In the same hearing, retired U.S. General Joseph Hoar defended Clark's position.

"I think Wes is spot on," Hoar said. "I think we have the time [to wait to take on Iraq's Saddam Hussein]. We need to concentrate on Al-Qaeda. We have made enormous strides here recently, and if we continue to do that with help from other countries, we will be successful quicker."

Besides his celebrated military career, Clark graduated top in his class from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and then won a prestigious scholarship to study at Britain's Oxford University.

If elected president, Clark would follow a number of other former generals who went on to become U.S. presidents. The last was World War II hero General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who served in the White House from 1953 to 1961. Eisenhower also had no prior political experience.

But while generally regarded as a brilliant strategist and a hard worker, Clark is certain to face tough questions about his personality and leadership style, which many colleagues in the military describe as controlling and thin-skinned.

During the Kosovo bombing, he unsuccessfully argued with then Secretary of Defense William Cohen for NATO to send in ground troops to ensure the swift defeat and departure of Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic.

Clark, who owed his NATO appointment to Clinton, was later forced out of the job three months before his term was up.

Detractors are likely to focus on yet another incident: just after the Kosovo campaign, Clark ordered British Lieutenant General Michael Jackson to block the runway at the airport in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, to prevent Moscow from reinforcing Russian troops who unexpectedly had seized the airfield.

But Jackson held off his superior. "Sir," he told Clark, then NATO's supreme commander, "I am not starting World War III for you."