Less Than Meets the Eye in NATO Chief's Early Exit

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There may have been no ticker tape parade for General Wesley Clark, but that doesn’t mean he’s getting the military version of a pink slip. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that General Clark, who commanded NATO forces in the war over Kosovo, will be removed from his command two months ahead of schedule early next year, linking the move to alleged tensions between Clark and the Pentagon over the conduct of the campaign. But the military’s explanation for the move may hold more water. "The fact is, Clark won the war," says TIME Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson. "Retiring him 10 months rather than 12 months from now is based entirely on the fact that they badly want to ensure his replacement is General Joe Ralston." Ralston, who became vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when his nomination for chairman was withdrawn after he confessed to an extramarital affair, would be forced by law to retire once his present command expires in February unless he gets a new posting within 60 days.

In addition to such practical considerations, the idea that shaving two months off Clark’s assignment next year amounts to a form of punishment comes across as strange — but not as strange as the very idea of punishing Clark. On both of his major differences with the Pentagon and the White House over the conduct of the Kosovo campaign — his desire to escalate the air war from early on and to prepare for a ground invasion — he may have been vindicated by the outcome. NATO was indeed forced to step up the air war, and many observers believe that it was only the prospect of a ground war that actually prompted Yuogslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw from Kosovo. "Clark may be suffering from perceptions created by the absence of a ticker tape parade," says Thompson. "But that’s because Clark won a hybrid war that wasn’t even declared."