AS SUPREME commander of NATO, Gen. Wesley Clark led the alliance to a victory in Kosovo that essentially saved its credibility and its future. He is now in the midst of what may be an even more challenging assignment: helping to build an enduring peace in the Balkans. This is the moment Defense Secretary William Cohen and the administration pick to inform Gen. Clark he will be relieved three months early in order to free his post.

It's often said, including within his Army, that Wes Clark is too "political." What does this really mean? No one could question Gen. Clark's courage or martial ability, which he has demonstrated at West Point (first in his class), in Vietnam (one Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart) and throughout his subsequent career. In Kosovo, he helped improvise new tactics that lent unprecedented effectiveness to air power in the absence of ground troops to spot and call in coordinates.

No, what "political" means in this case is that Gen. Clark wanted to use his authority to actually accomplish something. He understood early on, when most of his superiors were desperate to avoid any involvement in Kosovo, that empty threats would not impress Slobodan Milosevic but would destroy NATO as an effective alliance. Once the fighting began, he battled Washington repeatedly for the tools needed to win the war: Apache helicopters, sufficient air power, ground troops should they become necessary. He lost some of those battles and won some, but managed overall to forge a successful war strategy while taking orders from 19 separate allied governments. That did, indeed, require some understanding of politics.

The Pentagon defends its decision in his case as a normal rotation. But the abrupt announcement of his early removal can only undermine the administration's ostensible commitment to bring peace to the Balkans.