Military Critiques of Clark Deemed OK

Posted November 18, 2003 at 6:42pm

While aides to retired Gen. Wesley Clark’s Democratic presidential campaign continue to chafe under comments made about their candidate by retired military officials, senior Members of Congress expressed little concern about the propriety of such remarks.

“They have every right to speak out. They should talk out on their positions,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, adding the caveat: “If they are going to comment, they should not use innuendo.”

Reed urged Clark’s military critics to be “candid, fair, transparent and complete.”

Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner (Va.) said there should be “no limitations on it as long as it doesn’t affect national security.”

Since Clark, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, entered the race in late September he has been buffeted by criticism from former colleagues.

Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Hugh Shelton said that Clark was removed from his NATO post because of “character and integrity issues.” Former Maine Senator and Clinton administration Defense Secretary Bill Cohen has said repeatedly there was “friction” between he and Clark.

Some were even more blunt. When asked whether Clark would make a good president, former General Tommy Franks replied: “Absolutely not.”

Clark himself has expressed wonderment about these comments but has generally declined to return his critics’ fire. His staff has been more aggressive, alleging that these generals have ulterior motives for their comments.

“General Clark welcomes the opportunity to debate his record but when someone makes an unexplained comment about his character and then drops from sight, how is he supposed to answer?” asked Clark spokeswoman Mary Jacoby.

Clark’s campaign to this point has centered largely on his personal experience as leader of coalition forces in Kosovo and Bosnia and his opposition to the ongoing war in Iraq.

He launched the first television ad of his campaign this week, touting his military credentials.

The commercial, which is flooding the New Hampshire airwaves, touches on the wounds Clark received in battle during the Vietnam War as well as his work “to negotiate a peace between bitter enemies” in the Balkans.

“Wes Clark’s life is a simple American story, but he will make an extraordinary American president,” says the ad’s narrator.

Armed Services Chairman Warner did offer some praise for Clark and predicted that the former general will be able to withstand criticism of his past efforts.

“I worked with Clark for many years and he is tough,” said Warner. “He would follow the Truman doctrine: ‘If he can’t take the heat, he will get out of the kitchen.’”

Sen. Carl Levin (Mich.), the ranking member on Armed Services, agreed, noting: Clark “is going to have a lot more supporters among retired generals than detractors.”

Warner did warn, however, that those criticizing Clark must be careful not to divulge sensitive foreign policy secrets.

“Clark was making a lot of decisions that affected national security and the interests of other nations,” said Warner. “I would hope the criticism would be well thought through from the standpoint of how it would affect decisions which are still in place regarding national security or NATO.”

Others were less kind.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said he has “never had high regard” for Clark and disagreed with him about both the Kosovo and Bosnia conflicts.

As for retired generals commenting on Clark’s candidacy, Inhofe said it is “not only appropriate for generals to do that, but I think it is incumbent upon them to do it.”

Jacoby agreed that retired generals “have every right to comment,” but added: “The question is, are they commenting or are they smearing?”

The continuing controversy over Clark’s relationship with others in the military establishment comes as his campaign seeks to regroup after a series of staff changes and a significant loss of momentum in the past month.

Clark entered the presidential race to much fanfare but quickly encountered a major hurdle when he told reporters he “probably” would have supported the legislation authorizing the use of force in Iraq. He has since said he opposes the war in Iraq.

Clark later drew criticism for his decision to skip the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19, 2004, and instead focus his energy on New Hampshire’s Jan. 27 primary and the seven primaries set for Feb. 3.

Amid these bumps in the road, Clark also struggled to properly organize his staff.

Donnie Fowler, Clark’s original campaign manager, resigned his post just two weeks after starting, and sent a letter soon after to Clark warning that the campaign had grown too dependent on Washington advisers.

Others who were heavily involved early on in the campaign, including former Chief Operating Officer Dick Sklar and former national press secretary Kym Spell, will move from Little Rock and are expected to play more of an advisory role on the campaign.

Despite his recent struggles, Clark is still considered one of a handful of candidates with a legitimate shot at winning the nomination, largely due to his fundraising potential.

After raising $3.5 million in just two weeks of fundraising during the third quarter, Clark is expected to rake in roughly $12 million between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31.

Clark will have to contend with the financial power of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, both of whom have opted out of public financing for the primary, meaning they can raise and spend unlimited sums to win the nomination.

Mark Preston contributed to this report.