- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark nearly saw his military career end abruptly in 1996 before he gained the fame that propels his presidential race today.

Mr. Clark then held a top spot on the Joint Staff, the Joint Chiefs of Staff operations and planning arm. He had forged close working relationships with President Clinton’s national security team, especially Richard Holbrooke, the State Department’s point man on the upheavals in the Balkans.

Mr. Clark, a three-star officer noted for his street smarts and undisguised ambition, fiercely wanted a fourth star and the title of commander in chief, as combatant commanders were then described.

But in the way stood Gen. Dennis Reimer, who, as Army chief of staff, had the duty of recommending four-star promotions to the defense secretary.

Gen. Reimer, now retired and living in Oklahoma, declined through a spokeswoman to comment for this story. But, according to a retired general, Gen. Reimer decided that Mr. Clark should not be promoted and that his career should end. A West Point graduate, Gen. Reimer believed deeply in the academy’s code of ethics and questioned whether Mr. Clark always lived by that code, according to the source.

Gen. Reimer wanted another three-star, Lt. Gen. Marc Cisneros, for the next available four-star slot as chief of U.S. Southern Command. He was the only officer on Gen. Reimer’s recommended list.

He talked to the then-Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. John Shalikashvili. But when Gen. Shalikashvili’s list went to Defense Secretary William Perry, it contained only one name: Wesley Clark. Gen. Reimer’s confidants believe somewhere along the line, Mr. Clinton’s civilians intervened on Mr. Clark’s behalf.

The rest is history. Mr. Clark went on to command Southern Command and then won appointment to an even bigger job — supreme allied commander Europe. He won NATO’s first war in a 78-day bombing campaign to force Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic to remove marauding troops from Kosovo.

It rounded out a stellar 34-year career that saw Mr. Clark graduate first in his class at West Point, earn the Silver Star in Vietnam and travel to England as a Rhodes scholar.

But along the way, Mr. Clark earned a reputation for not being honest at times with colleagues.

Gen. Cisneros, now retired, told the Associated Press Mr. Clark “just outright lied” when he confronted him and asked if he was seeking the Southern Command job. “I worry about his ethical standards regarding honesty and forthrightness,” Gen. Cisneros said.

Some in the Texas Hispanic community wanted to make a big issue of Gen. Cisneros falling victim to palace politics. But Gen. Cisneros called them off.

In 1999, Defense Secretary William Cohen and Gen. Hugh Shelton, Gen. Shalikashvili’s successor as Joint Chiefs chairman, fired Mr. Clark as NATO commander. Mr. Clark had expected to serve several more months or perhaps win a year extension.

Former military officers said Mr. Clark, 59, was fired because he misled Mr. Cohen.

Asked about Mr. Clark’s candidacy last September, Gen. Shelton said, “I’ve known Wes for a long time. I will tell you the reason he came out of Europe early had to do with integrity and character issues, things that are very near and dear to my heart. I’m not going to say whether I’m a Republican or a Democrat. I’ll just say Wes won’t get my vote.”

The issue of Mr. Clark’s firing pops up now and again on the campaign trail as he seeks the Democratic presidential nomination.

In New Hampshire Sunday, Mr. Clark said Mr. Cohen fired him because, “I had a belief that the United States should prevent ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and he didn’t agree with that.”

According to United Press International, Mr. Clark said Mr. Clinton sided with him and later “the Pentagon got even.”

Colleagues of Mr. Cohen tell a different story. They told The Washington Times last fall that during the Kosovo war, the four-star general would agree to do missions requested by Mr. Cohen and Gen. Shelton, but then go around their backs to Clinton civilians. The result: The missions were not accomplished.

Mr. Clark’s campaign headquarters in Arkansas did not respond to questions submitted by The Times. A spokesman for Mr. Cohen did not return a phone message.

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