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Wesley Clark: We Did The Right Thing In 1999

Wesley Clark at the Asia Society in New York on April 7, 2010.
Wesley Clark at the Asia Society in New York on April 7, 2010.
NEW YORK -- Few former U.S. military leaders have more direct experience with the Balkans than Wesley Clark, who was NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe during the Kosovo crisis. Clark, who is now retired from the military, heads the consulting group Wesley K. Clark Associates, based in Little Rock, Arkansas. RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev caught up with the former NATO commander at the Asia Society in New York. In a wide-ranging interview he discusses the challenges facing the region then and now.

RFE/RL: The NATO 1999 military operation in Kosovo was conducted on humanitarian grounds -- to save an ethnic group under the threat of extermination. Still, it was criticized more harshly than other, strictly military NATO operations. How would you explain this?

Wesley Clark: Well, in 1999 action was taken because we could see the beginning of a replay of a familiar pattern of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. And it was that replay which prompted NATO to act. It wasn’t just that it was a humanitarian action, it was an action to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe that was unfolding in front of us.

RFE/RL: Kosovo today is arguably one of the worst places in Europe with rampant corruption, abject poverty, organized crime, drug trafficking, ethnic tensions. Considering its current state do you think the action taken in 1999 was justified?

Clark: What was done in 1999 was done to prevent a round of Serb ethnic cleansing which would have inflamed the Balkans and caused the failure of the missions in both, Bosnia and Macedonia. So, yes, I strongly support from the 11-year perspective looking back on it and say “Yes,” we did the right thing in those days.

RFE/RL: The leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Milorad Dodik, was not an associate of Radovan Karadzic during the wars of the 1990s, but he adopted his ideas of Serbs' exclusivity. He does not have the Yugoslav army to back his ideas, but he is now managing to destabilize Bosnia and is threatening with secession. Is it possible to create a shortcut for Bosnia’s access to NATO and, if so, is this a remedy against attempts to destabilize the country?

Clark: I don’t think bringing Bosnia into NATO will change the internal dynamics inside Bosnia and I think the people there need to recognize [that] the past is the past, we need to face the future. Bosnia is a very small place on the map of Europe and for the people there to have any economic hope and a chance for their children and grandchildren to have the kind of future that other young people in Europe all have, then Bosnia has to move forward.

RFE/RL: Is it safe to assume that joining European institutions is a remedy for stability?

Clark: In so far as Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Albania are there, then yes, it looks logical that we would hope that someday Serbia could join, we would hope that someday Bosnia could join. But that’s contingent on the work that their own political leaders do and the work of the people in those countries to shape the political leadership and the political institutions in ways that are conducive to the higher ideals of the European Union and NATO. That work is ongoing.

RFE/RL: Regarding Serbia’s possible accession to European institutions, there are many who believe it won’t happen until General Ratko Mladic is apprehended and brought to stand trial at The Hague. Do you believe apprehending General Mladic at this point justifies the risks including hurting the Serbs' national sensibilities?

Clark: I think Ratko Mladic should be brought to justice. He was an integral part of the war crimes, of the pattern of war crimes across Bosnia, and he was particularly implicated in the murder of these Muslim men after Srebrenica. So, he needs to be brought to justice. And the Serbian people should understand that and support it.

RFE/RL: A possible apprehension of Ratko Mladic -- is it going to do more harm than good in the minds of the Serbs?

Clark: I don’t think that that would hurt Serbian sentiments, I think that there are many people in Serbia who recognize what Mladic has done. They are waiting for their government and their elected officials to take the right kind of positive steps to bring Serbia into the future.

RFE/RL: It was reported at the time that the refusal of the British General Mike Jackson to obey your order to stop the Russian battalion on its way to Pristina airport on June 12, 1999, was a case of insubordination during wartime. What actually happened?

Clark: There was never any insubordination there, he had a different view than I did. He was supported by his national authorities and they went to my national authorities -- that’s the way NATO works. There was no insubordination, there was perhaps an emotional overreaction on the part of the British general but there was no insubordination.

RFE/RL: During your presidential campaign in 2004 General Hugh Shelton has been quoted as saying that he would never vote for you because of “integrity and character” issues. He had never clarified what he meant, do you have any idea?

Clark: I’ve never understood what he was talking about and he’s never made it clear, I don’t know what he was talking about. That’s his personal choice, he was supporting a rival candidate.

RFE/RL: I grew up in a communist country, Bulgaria, and there was a two-year mandatory military service, Americans, we were taught, were the main enemy. The officers would often say that once a soldier, always a soldier. You’ve spent 34 years of your life in the military, now a decade out of it. Do you miss the military life?

Clark: I miss a lot of things in life, I miss my military friends also, I miss my good friends in Europe including many in Bulgaria. But you know, life’s a river, you live it and it changes, and as you live it -- it changes you. So, one of the wonderful things about living in a Western society is that you’re able to continue to evolve, adapt, and grow. And I always treasure my military experiences and I am proud of my service in it, the United States Army, and my work for NATO. But I’m very active in the business community, I’m teaching, and life’s very full right now.