'Dream candidate' Wesley Clark sets out for White House

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Retired General Wesley Clark - first in his class at West Point, Rhodes scholar, Vietnam veteran and Nato supreme commander during the Kosovo war - returned to his native Little Rock in Arkansas yesterday, to make official what has been on the cards for months: that he will become the 10th contender for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.

The next four months, rather than anything he said yesterday, are what will determine whether he has a chance of becoming the first career soldier since Dwight Eisenhower to enter the White House. But his entry has given an already unpredictable Democratic race another jolt of intrigue. And glamour as well.

If anyone is the President from central casting, it is 58-year-old General Clark. His sculpted features come complete with deep brown eyes burning with conviction and commitment. A spell as military analyst on CNN earlier this year showcased his easy communication skills.

He was, and remains, an opponent of the Iraq war. But this is no armchair liberal critic. As a four-star general who commanded the 1999 war that helped to topple a Balkan tyrant, Wesley Clark has the credibility to challenge George Bush on the very ground where he is supposedly strongest.

In other ways too, he is the Identikit candidate. From George Washington on, America has never been averse to soldiers-turned-President. General Clark comes moreover from the South, home turf of the latest three Democrats to win the White House, but now the linchpin of George Bush's tiny majority in the electoral college (if not the popular vote) in 2000.

His domestic policies - insofar as they are known - seem to be "sensibly moderate" in the tradition of Bill Clinton, who won on such a platform. And this new contender from Arkansas is almost as clever, charming and articulate as the former president.

But General Clark's sales pitch is founded upon his ascent to the top of the military ladder. And those years in uniform contain clues that his presidential bid is as likely to implode as to carry him to his party's nomination and the presidency itself. No one doubts the Clark intellect. The Clark judgement is another matter.

Take Kosovo, the 11-week war, fought exclusively from the air, without a single Nato casualty. The former supreme commander now holds up the campaign against Slobodan Milosevic as a model of modern conflict, a war fought by the US at the head of a multilateral alliance - not as the superpower that launched an unprovoked, almost unilateral war against Iraq. General Clark claims his political skills played a large part in holding together that 19-nation alliance.

Kosovo also casts him in a less flattering light. There was the episode, well remembered in Britain, which pitted him against General Sir Michael Jackson, commander of Nato's K-For. "Sir, I'm not starting World War Three for you," General Jackson replied when ordered by General Clark to prevent a Russian force from occupying the airport at Pristina. General Clark took the refusal to the most senior military commanders in London and Washington, but was overruled in both capitals. Precisely what happened is not clear. But the episode hardly reinforces the image of the cool commander-in-chief with the super-safe pair of hands.

Nor were his people skills that dazzling. General Clark might have held Nato in line, but not his own bosses at the Pentagon. William Cohen, Defence Secretary at the time, could not stand General Clark and his perceived love of the limelight. "Get your f*** face off TV," Mr Cohen is said to have ordered him at one point. Even more irksome was his habit of bypassing the Pentagon in using backchannels to the White House. General Clark's relations are warm with Mr Clinton, who urged him to join the 2004 race. But in 2000 they were not enough to prevent the Defence Secretary and his other enemies at the Pentagon from removing him from his Nato command three months early, in effect sacking him.

Now, many people feel, the same traits of imperiousness and self-centredness could doom his presidential bid. Not only must General Clark develop detailed policies on a host of domestic issues, especially the economy. He must also get used to the messy, fractious world of politics, so different from the ordered culture of the military.

"This is what my whole career and leadership experience has pointed towards," he said yesterday, portraying himself as the best-qualified person to take charge of America.

But the question remains. General Clark will certainly liven up the campaign. But will he follow the path of General Eisenhower, who breezed into the presidency almost by popular demand? Or will he be an Alexander Haig, another hard-driving general (and also Nato supreme commander) whose 1988 presidential bid self-destructed in a sea of temper tantrums?