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NATO: Was Supreme Commander Dismissed Over Kosovo?

The announcement that NATO's top commander in Europe, U.S. General Wesley Clark, will step down two months before the end of his tenure has sparked a storm of speculation over whether he is being dismissed by Washington. Our correspondent talked to a defense analyst who says Clarke's premature departure may be due to conflicts with the U.S. government over strategy during the Kosovo campaign.

Prague, 28 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- It is still too early to know why the chairman of the United States' top military body -- the joint chiefs of staff -- telephoned General Wesley Clark yesterday to ask him to step down as NATO's top commander in Europe in April of next year.

General Henry Shelton is reported to have asked Clark to step aside two months before his term would normally expire in July so that the post can go to the current vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Joseph Ralston. Clarke agreed, and since the call both the Defense Department and the entire U.S. administration have portrayed the events as being part of a normal rotation of functions within top military circles.

Aides to Defense Secretary William Cohen have told the Washington Post newspaper that Cohen was determined to keep Ralston -- who otherwise planned to retire early next year -- in service and the NATO spot was the only one sufficiently interesting for Ralston to accept. At the same time, Pentagon officials have said that several other top U.S. generals with regional commands will be stepping down next year after serving three-year terms similar to those of Clark. This would make Clark's replacement far from unique.

But despite the official explanations, Clark's unexpected early departure from his post has triggered a large wave of speculation as to whether, in fact, he has been dismissed. The speculation is driven by the curious timing of the events. Clark has just led NATO successfully through its first major combat since its formation, and the operation has been widely praised by U.S. leaders for its success in getting hundreds of thousands of Kosovo refugees back to their homes.

Such success might have been expected to qualify Clark for an extended -- not abbreviated -- tenure at NATO. Recently, his tenure had been extended, by NATO itself, for another year to next July. His predecessors served in Brussels four years or more.

But analysts say that while Clark won praise for the success of the Kosovo air campaign, he also made powerful enemies within the Clinton administration in behind-the-scenes disputes over strategy during the conflict.

Michael Codner is assistant director of the Royal United Services Institute in London and an expert on NATO affairs. He told RFE/RL today that Clark and the U.S. joint chiefs of staff strongly disagreed on whether Washington should publicly threaten to commit ground troops to Kosovo if the air campaign alone was not enough to sway Belgrade.

Clark repeatedly urged Washington to make some statement of commitment and in doing so backed other key NATO powers -- particularly Britain and France -- in pressing Washington over the issue. Codner says that may have led to an impression in Washington that Clark was too strongly identifying with a European position and not strongly enough with U.S. interests, marking him for replacement once the campaign ended. Michael Codner says:

"It is a problem for any supreme allied commander in Europe, who is also a United States commander, that they have to make a balance between the association with NATO and also looking after United States interests...And arguably in that process he [Clark] became too closely associated with the NATO case and to that extent one could say he had sort of gone native and it was therefore time for him to move on from the viewpoint of the [U.S.] administration and the joint chiefs [of staff]."

Codner says that many top officers within NATO itself, as well as leaders in the British and French governments, were convinced that a vow to commit ground troops was necessary to give teeth to the bombing campaign. Otherwise, they reasoned, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic might have tried simply to outwait the NATO air campaign. According to Codner:

"If the coercive effect of the air campaign was going to be fully realized and Milosevic was really going to accept that NATO was serious, there had to be a genuine threat that if the air campaign was not successful there would be a ground campaign that follows up. ...I can see that General Clark would have been under considerable pressure from within certain areas of NATO and from some NATO members to pressure the American government to make some sort of...commitment that could at least be published that there would a ground campaign involving U.S. troops if the air campaign wasn't successful."

Codner says that both London and Paris backed the use of ground troops if what military strategists call a semi-permissive environment could be achieved in Kosovo through air bombardments that significantly weakened Belgrade's capability to militarily defend itself. Germany also backed using ground troops but more cautiously, only if a fully permissive environment could be achieved.

Washington's participation in any ground operation was seen as vital for making any European threats on ground troops believable. But the U.S. government refused to commit itself to a position. The White House and Pentagon feared that any such threat would raise domestic public concern over potential U.S. casualties in the Balkans and cause a backlash against Washington's involvement in the air war.

Codner and other analysts caution that it is still too early to know for certain whether Clark's conflict with Washington over ground troops cost him his post. They warn that any attempts to understand the motives now must be taken only as informed guesses and that other explanations may still emerge in the days ahead.

General Clark himself, meanwhile, has refused to speak about the events or what he might do when he steps down. The general told reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels that he will not speculate on what opportunities might be available in public or private life, and that as long as he remains at NATO, he will keep his attention on his current job.

The only sign so far of a possible future job for Clark has been a statement from the Pentagon saying that Defense Secretary Cohen has recommended to Clinton that Clark be considered for a high-level ambassadorship.