In case you weren’t aware, Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark led NATO forces to victory over Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. I’m being facetious, of course; Clark’s supporters remind us of his role as Supreme Allied Commander during the Kosovo war every chance they get. And, for that matter, well they should.
Yet is Clark’s larger record in the Balkans without blemish? Hardly. Leave aside his various mistakes in Kosovo, such as his ordering British Gen. Sir Michael Jackson to advance on Russian soldiers at Pristina airport. (Gen. Jackson refused, claiming such a move would’ve precipitated “World War III.”) Seldom mentioned, but indeed troubling, is the nature of Clark’s August 1994 meeting in Banja Luka, Bosnia, with Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic.
The meeting occurred under the auspices of the Pentagon, at a time when Clark was director of strategy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He had gone to war-ravaged Bosnia on a fact-finding mission. Though reportedly advised by the State Department not to meet with Mladic, who was widely blamed for Serb barbarities at Gorazde and Sarajevo, Clark did anyway.
That alone is not necessarily a scandal; in 1994 U.S. officials still found themselves negotiating with the likes of Mladic. But Clark should have known the character of his company. As early as December 1992, then-Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger had accused the Serb general of perpetrating mass murder and named him as one of the top three Serb candidates for a Nuremberg-style war crimes trial. In 1993, Senator Dennis DeConcini, then co-chair of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, said that Mladic’s troops “are responsible for many of the atrocities we hear about in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
Clark’s behavior at Banja Luka is thus difficult to countenance. British Gen. Sir Michael Rose, who attended the infamous meeting, writes in his memoir Fighting for Peace that Clark was “ill-equipped to deal with the brutal cunning of a man like Mladic.” At one point, Rose describes, “[Mladic] took his pistol from its holster and presented it to Wes. On it were engraved the words, From General Mladic. We were appalled. As we left Banja Luka, one of Wes Clark’s aides asked Col. Gordon Rudd, who had been present at the meeting, ‘Did the General do wrong?’ ‘Yup,’ replied Gordon, a man of few words, ‘he did wrong!’”
Many in the State Department, including the U.S. special envoy to Bosnian peace talks and the U.S. ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina, were furious. The Washington Post reported on Sept. 1, 1994, “What State Department officials found especially disturbing was a photograph of Clark and Mladic wearing each other’s caps. The picture appeared in several European newspapers, U.S. officials said. Clark accepted as gifts Mladic’s hat, a bottle of brandy and a pistol inscribed in Cyrillic, U.S. officials said. ‘It’s like cavorting with Hermann Goering,’ one U.S. official complained.”
The diplomatic fallout from the picture, which featured Clark and Mladic smiling jovially in their swapped hats, was severe. (It’s been rumored that Clark’s gaffe delayed his promotion to four-star general.) In retrospect, the picture appears even more shocking given what transpired nine months later in the Bosnian city of Srebrenica. Over the course of a week, Mladic directed a systematic roundup of the city’s Muslims and organized their transportation to execution sites. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that 7,079 Bosnian Muslims were killed in Srebrenica between July 12 and July 16, 1995. Shortly after the massacre, The Hague’s war crimes tribunal formally indicted Mladic on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. He has somehow evaded capture for the past eight years and remains, to this day, at large.
When, in April 1997, President Clinton nominated Clark to head U.S. and NATO forces in Europe, the editors of the New Republic wryly observed, “If the president was trying to remind the public about the lack of seriousness with which his administration has taken war crimes in Bosnia, this is a fine choice.” Clark’s “jolly time” with Mladic, they wrote, had revealed his “moral cluelessness.”
Since Clark announced his candidacy for president, however, the Mladic story has received little attention. His Democratic opponents haven’t yet made an issue of it, though they have pilloried the General for his past statements of support for President Bush. Not surprisingly, many of the Harvard student campaign leaders I contacted were unaware of the 1994 incident. Rebecca E. Rubins ’05, chair of Harvard Students for Lieberman, hadn’t heard of it. Neither had Nicholas F. B. Smyth ’05, chair of Harvard Students for Kerry, nor Andrew M. Crespo ’05, co-chair of Harvard Students for Dean. All seemed surprised that it hadn’t gotten more notice.
Andrew J. Frank ’05, co-chair of Harvard Students for Edwards, did know of the story. Unlike the recent uproar over Clark’s pro-Bush remarks, Frank says, this controversy could have long-term significance. “I think at some point he’ll have to explain it.”
Clark backers might argue that his meeting with Mladic is old news. Mark E. Lebel ’07 of Harvard Students for Clark writes in an e-mail that Clark’s stance on intervention in Kosovo shows he has no affinity for dictators or war criminals. That’s certainly true. But the Banja Luka episode still reflects a mind-boggling lack of judgment.
Indeed, if Gen. Clark wants to be president, he’ll eventually have to revisit and clarify his carousing with Ratko Mladic. Maybe one of his fellow Democrats should ask him about it.
Duncan M. Currie ’04 is a history concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.