A man made in Vietnam

PROFILE Wesley Clark As Nato's supreme commander, he will send the bombers against the Serbs.

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f Nato takes military action against Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia this week, then the fate of much of the Balkans lies in the hands of a man born a Southern Baptist in Arkansas, who grew up in Little Rock after his father died, and who went on to to study as a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford at the height of the Vietnam war.

The parallels between the lives of Bill Clinton and Wesley Clark, Nato's supreme commander since 1997, are uncanny. The contrasts are also sharp. Both men are in their fifties - Clark is 54, Clinton 52 - and both are married, with one child. Their faces reveal profound differences. Clinton's sensual mobile face is lined and sagging, while Clark's face has an almost seraphic quality, making him look far younger than he is. The eyes, however, lack Clinton's twinkle. Clark intimidates with a penetrating stare of zealous intensity. His soundbites are not as colourful as Clinton's, but they do get to the heart of the matter. He has said that if Nato warplanes do hit Yugoslavia, it will not be "a one or two bomb affair".

Despite their common roots in Arkansas, Clark and Clinton did not meet until 1965 in Washington. Each was academically gifted. Clark passed first in his class at West Point in 1966 before going on to Oxford on the same scholarship as Clinton. Clark finished his PPE course. Clinton ducked out of finals. Their paths rarely crossed and their reactions to the great issue of their time as students could hardly have been more different.

Clinton dodged the Vietnam draft but his engagement with the anti-war movement in Oxford was tentative. While his future commander-in-chief took his pacifism lite, Wes Clark travelled around British universities speaking in defence of US policy. He left Oxford sooner than necessary to serve in Vietnam. In Britain, his pro-war stance only put him in the line of fire of egg-throwing radicals, but in Vietnam he took hits from Vietcong bullets. After receiving four wounds he was awarded the Silver Star. Having witnessed bloodshed first hand, he can be scathing about triumphalist politicians who talk of the US's "bloodless victory" in the Cold War: "It was anything but a cold war for those of us who went through that."

While in Vietnam, Clark converted to Catholicism. His President developed a love of the flamboyant public confession, but Clark chose a religion that insists on the privacy of the confessional. Like Bill Clinton, he has been married to the same woman for many years, but no whiff of scandal attaches to his name.Of course adultery is a court-martial offence in the US army - at least for all ranks below the Commander-in-Chief.

In Vietnam Clark commanded a mechanised infantry company; his service marked him out for promotion. He was drafted as an aide into the embattled Nixon White House. There he joined the nursery of future US military leaders established by Nixon's post-Watergate chief of staff, Alexander Haig. Haig set the precedent for military men to move via the White House on to lead Nato.

Clark rose steadily towards the top of the US army but never saw action again. His skills as a troop trainer and military organiser, however, meant that his reputation carried on growing. After the Gulf War he was a key figure in the repeated rehearsing of large-scale rapid interventions in the region. But all the time the Bosnian war was attracting more and more US attention and Clark became Washington's key military adviser on the conflict. It would be a mistake to see him as merely a soldier's soldier with no political side. Unlike British generals who affect a bluff distaste for politics, American generals understand the need to lobby their corner.

Like many in the US military he was suspicious of the anti-Vietnam generation of politicians who suddenly turned interventionists on getting elected to high office in the early 1990s. In Bosnia, furthermore, he instinctively seemed to find the professional officer corps of the Serb forces more to his liking than the rag-tag Muslim side.

In 1994, he fell into a propaganda trap when he visited the Serb commander, Ratko Mladic, with Britain's General Michael Rose. Like many brutal men, Mladic could alternate bluster with charm. After a tough discussion, he disarmed Clark with small talk, remarking how much he liked his US general's three-star cap. Impulsively Clark swapped his cap for Mladic's distinctive Serbian hat and walked out wearing it into a blaze of flashing cameras. After a convivial lunch, he even accepted Mladic's service revolver with an engraved message from the general most people held responsible for the worst massacres in Europe since 1945.

This faux pas did not hurt Clark's standing in Washington, because Clinton's real policy was building bridges to the Serbs to persuade them to accept a compromise peace plan. In 1995, after a series of Serb atrocities finally precipitated Nato bombing, Clark played a key role in the Dayton negotiations which ended that war.

After Richard Holbrooke, no American was more involved in dealing with Milosevic than Clark was. Holbrooke's memoirs recall the late-night bonding sessions with Milosevic at Dayton. US policy was to pressure the Muslims and the Croats into a deal acceptable to the Serbian leader, who would do his part by pulling the rug from underneath the local Bosnian Serb warlords, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. Clark did much to reassure the Serbs that their military security would be respected by the proposed accords.

After Dayton Clark was rewarded with the US command in Panama where he thought a lot about post-Cold War challenges to the US military. He recognised that peacekeeping was likely to occupy much of its time, but he also saw the "moral ambiguity" of peacekeeping operations where each side on the ground regarded the outsiders not as neutrals but as part of the jockeying for power. In fact, his eyes were never really off the Balkans. The souring of relations between the West and Belgrade after 1995 was a complex matter, but the ignition of the Kosovo conflict last year threatened the whole peace assembled at Dayton by Holbrooke and Clark.

Both of them were sent repeatedly to Belgrade as the crisis deepened to try to cajole their old partner Milosevic into backing off from his crackdown in Kosovo. Milosevic's implacable resistance seems to have disappointed and embittered Clark in his attitude to the Serbs.

When it comes to his own political survival, Milosevic treats friendship as an expendable commodity. Milosevic could accept a Nato presence in Bosnia but sees any US-led intervention inside his Rump Yugoslavia as a threat to his own power base. Repeated visits from his Dayton buddies Holbrooke and Clark have not shaken his resolve so far.

Ten days ago, Wesley Clark told the French Higher Institute for Defence Studies that Milosevic was "a tough negotiator and hard bargainer" but one who understood the military realities. "He's wily, shrewd and calculating but we are in a good position today because he respects Nato air power and is very much aware of what it can do." Milosevic may also realise that there is a limit to what air power alone can do. Another US bogyman, Saddam Hussein, has certainly understood that. Wesley Clark faces the likelihood that ground forces will have to go into Kosovo if his President is determined to get Serbian compliance with Nato demands.

Serb politicians have been promising any US interventionists a "second Vietnam" ever since the break-up of Yugoslavia began in 1991. For Clark, "Vietnam served as a military lesson for how such intervention should and should not be handled". Whether he has learned the right lessons from America's bitterest military experience remains to be seen, but in the coming week his commander-in-chief may well stake the credibility of his waning presidency on just that.

A "bloodless" (on the Nato side) Gulf War-style victory in Kosovo would presumably satisfy Clinton. Whatever happens, however, Clark is unlikely to rise further in the military. There is only one post left for a general of his seniority to be promoted to - the Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US armed forces. But, after two successive generals in the post, the US navy is determined to put an admiral in the job. After rising in the shadow of Bill Clinton for so long, perhaps it would be appropriate for the other boy from Arkansas to leave office at the same time as his commander-in-chief.

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