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January 15, 2004

BILLY BECK NOTICES that Wesley Clark is claiming he wasn't relieved of his command in the Balkans. The problem with that claim is that, well, he was. I think that the quote that Beck points to is a distillation of this kind of unconvincing spin, from Hardball:

MATTHEWS: Did Bill Clinton agree in your policy?

CLARK: Absolutely.

MATTHEWS: Why did he relieve you?

CLARK: First of all, I wasn’t relieved.

MATTHEWS: You weren’t?

CLARK: No. Uh-uh.

MATTHEWS: You weren’t relieved as supreme commander as NATO.

CLARK: No, I wasn’t. No. I was asked to retire three months early.

MATTHEWS: How is that different?. . . .

CLARK: If you relieve someone, you take them out of command. What happened here was, I was asked to retire early and then it was then leaked to “The Washington Post” in an effort to keep me from talking to Bill Clinton about it. So this was a behind the back power play. Bill Clinton told me himself he had nothing to do with it, And I believe him.

Matthews isn't convinced by this story, and neither am I. And I'd very much like to hear the whole story behind Clark's departure.

UPDATE: Reader Robin Burk emails:

Clark is technically correct (if I remember correctly) in saying he was not relieved of his NATO command. Relieving a commander is a major step that occurs with a formal declaration by superiors and transfer of command authority without the necessity for consent from that commander. It is a very public rebuke. My understanding is that Clark was urged to retire so that they would not need to take the drastic step of formally relieving him.

Hmm. I see the point, though Clark's angle still seems like spinning to me. Meanwhile, the not-exactly-impartial Ann Coulter offers this as the reason for Clark's, er, disemployment:

Clark's forces bombed a civilian convoy by mistake, killing more than 70 ethnic Albanians, and then Clark openly lied about it to the press. First he denied NATO had done it, and when forced to retract that, Clark pinned the blame on an innocent U.S. pilot. As New York Newsday reported on April 18, 1999: "American officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the staff of Army Gen. Wesley Clark, the NATO commander, pointed to an innocent F-16 Falcon pilot who was castigated by the media for blasting a refugee convoy." Eventually, even a model of probity like Bill Clinton was shocked by Clark's mendacity and fired him.

If this is the reason for Clark's "early retirement," it's news to me.

UPDATE: Phil Carter has a lengthy post on what it means to be "relieved of command." Here's the short version, from his email to me:

Bottom line: I don't think he was technically relieved, but I think it's easy to see how someone would casually use that word to describe his situation. Relief is a term of art in the Army, and it carries specific administrative and legal meaning. Clark wasn't relieved in that sense, but he may have been relieved/fired/terminated in the civilian sense of those words.

I'll defer to Phil's superior knowledge, though it's made more confusing by the fact that Admiral Quigley refers to Clark as being "relieved" twice in this press conference quoted by Billy Beck above. So does this article (also quoted by Beck) from the Command and General Staff College of the Army, which refers to Clark as having been "initially shocked to find himself relieved and retired." So it's not just us civilians who are using the term loosely, if that's what's going on. Compare that with James Ridgway's report (which formed the original basis for Beck's post) that "Clark said he wasn't relieved, but in the interests of helping the Kosovo people, he quit his job as supreme NATO commander."

MORE: In response to an email from Mark Kleiman, I want to be clear: I think that Clark is spinning. He's trying to say that he wasn't "relieved" (maybe, technically, true in terms of a narrow military meaning of the word) while implying that he wasn't given the boot, which he pretty clearly was. In fact, in the Ridgeway quote -- though it's an indirect quote, which is why I also quoted the Hardball bit above -- he seems to suggest that it was all a generous act on his part.

That's rather implausible, to put it mildly. People don't generally get asked to retire early because they're doing a great job. I don't necessarily endorse Ann Coulter's version above, as I thought I made clear, but Clark did something that got him booted, and I'm still not clear on what. It seems to me that we ought to be clear on it, since he's running for President.