It was just a few weeks ago that this reporter was lucky enough to hitch a ride on General Wesley ClarkÂ's airplane as the NATO commander flew to meet Defense Secretary William Cohen for a quick visit to U.S. forces in and around Kosovo. Maybe it was because there was no one else to talk to, but the general invited me to pass the hour and a half journey in his personal cabin and I naturally snapped at the chance.
After all, this was the guy who had just commanded the military campaign that won the war against Serbia. And there has long been a certain mystique about Clark in my mind. One of my friends who was his West Point classmate and another who was a Rhodes scholar with him talk about Clark in larger-than-life terms.
He is both a leader and a maverick, someone with laser sharp intelligence and analytical skills who has trouble kissing up to all the people itÂ's necessary to please in the military.
ClarkÂ's press secretary, Stephanie Hoenne, hovered through the whole conversation as if she were afraid that the general might go off about something. She neednÂ't have worried. He was extremely discreet, refusing to discuss the then merely reported and now confirmed struggles he had with the Pentagon over his desire to wage a more aggressive campaign against Slobodan Milosevic.
But still I got the impression that Clark, lean, handsome and brash, thought his days might be numbered. For one thing, he was too honest to dismiss my questions about whether or not the vague terms of the cease fire and the lack of any government structure in Kosovo might make peacekeeping there even more difficult than it has been in Bosnia. The military tends to like its front men to be cheerleaders.
Still, I keep searching my memory for any signs of open stress between General Clark and Secretary Cohen. Now I realize there might have been a certain coolness there, but at the time I attributed it to military professionalism, and besides, neither man is a hugger or a backslapper. Cohen made sure to praise Clark at every stop along the way, and Clark seemed genuinely glad that Cohen had made the trip to rally the troops.
But now Clark has been fired and embarrassed. He was informed that heÂ'll be replaced three months early by Air Force General Joe Ralston because Cohen was afraid that Ralston, whoÂ'd been passed over for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff because of a little adultery problem, was going to retire if he didnÂ't get the NATO job.
The Washington Post, which boke the story, says that Cohen respects RalstonÂ's skills as a diplomat and trouble shooter, which certainly leaves the implication that he doesnÂ't see Clark in quite the same light. Cohen is now insisting that he also values Clark, and has even asked the White House about appointing him ambassador-to-somewhere.
But Cohen didnÂ't have the courtesy to call Clark personally. He had his press secretary pull the general out of a dinner to give him the news because it had already been leaked to the Post.
In handling the change of command this way the secretary, who ought to know better, has sent a message that Clark is being punished for daring to question the strategy of his political bosses, even though there are no allegations that he ever disobeyed an order. As one of ClarkÂ's friends said, "this just doesnÂ't seem fair."