President Clinton said today he was disturbed and "distressed" by the way the public learned of Gen. Wesley K. Clark's replacement as NATO commander because it incorrectly suggested he was unhappy with Clark's prosecution of the war over Kosovo.

"I'm disturbed about the way it became public," Clinton told reporters as he arrived here for a summit meeting to promote stability in the Balkans. "I think it opens the way to an inference that is absolutely false."

The president began his answer to a reporter's question by saying, "I'm not sure what the facts are," but went on to say: "Any inference that it amounts to an early retirement or that somebody was disappointed in his performance is just simply wrong. . . . I think Wes Clark's done a terrific job."

It was reported this week that Clark, a hard-driving Army general, was surprised to learn that the Pentagon was replacing him as NATO's top commander ahead of schedule. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen explained that the early move was necessary to allow Clark's chosen successor, Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, to move into the post. Under military rules, Cohen said, Ralston would be forced to retire if his assignment were not advanced by two months.

Some in the military and elsewhere, however, interpreted the move as a sign that the Clinton administration was displeased with the way Clark publicly pressed for a more vigorous campaign against the Yugoslav forces of President Slobodan Milosevic during the war that ended in June. Clark urged the use of AH-64 Apache helicopters and open preparation for a ground invasion of Kosovo, neither of which was approved by U.S. leaders and their NATO allies.

In speaking to reporters today, Clinton restated Cohen's explanation. "We wanted General Ralston to go [into the job], and under the military rules, he has to take up another post within 60 days of the termination of his present post, or he would have to retire," Clinton said. "I was, myself, a little distressed about the way it broke, and how it did, because of the inference that many people drew. But that is literally all there is to it."

He said of Clark, a fellow Arkansan: "I've known him for 30 years. I have great confidence in him, and his strength and determination were very important to the outcome of what happened not only in Kosovo, but earlier, his pivotal role in the peace process coming out of Bosnia. . . . I have the highest regard for him."