Aspin, nominee for Defense, is a hawk who believes Pentagon can cut more

December 23, 1992|By Charles W. Corddry | Charles W. Corddry,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- With his choice of Rep. Les Aspin to be defense secretary, President-elect Bill Clinton has set up a potential Pentagon donnybrook over the future size, organization and use of U.S. armed forces.

The Wisconsin Democrat's approaches to defense planning, spelled out in a pile of studies over the past year, have provoked distrust and amusement in the Pentagon -- and a certain respect as well, because he has stimulated lively debate on post-Cold War defense needs.

Mr. Aspin, 54, is a one-man think tank with closer ties to Washington's policy research groups than to the nitty-gritty of the Pentagon world where policies must be implemented.

He is often on the cutting edge with his defense studies, as he was with his accurate forecast of the Persian Gulf war's outcome when other Democrats were wringing their hands.

As House Armed Services Committee chairman, Mr. Aspin has elevated the defense debate by focusing on key strategic issues, said Navy Secretary Sean O'Keefe in a recent interview.

"It's just that he comes out wrong" on how to organize forces for the new world of regional conflict, Mr. O'Keefe contended.

Mr. Aspin's major positions directly conflict with those of Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who will be the Clinton administration's military adviser during its formative stages.

General Powell has publicly described as "mistaken" Mr. Aspin's claims that the Bush administration has failed to reshape the military for the new era while still organizing for massive land war in Europe.

Some of the issues that will be on the front burner and may generate early controversy for the new defense chief:

* How and by how much to reduce the Republican administration's $282 billion defense budget request going to Congress next month.

Mr. Aspin contends that in the murky new world order it is possible to measure the threats to U.S. interests and tailor military forces precisely to deal with those dangers, discarding unneeded arms.

General Powell derides this concept and cites the risk of "being unprepared to handle a crisis or war that no one predicted or expected."

The general took a sideswipe at the concepts of his prospective new boss during his first press briefing on the Somalia mission. The nation, he said, had to guard against cuts that were too big and too fast, made "by those who want to size the force exactly, plus one person, against a threat that they think exists now but that isn't the one we're going to have to deal with two days from now."

* Mr. Aspin contends that his analysis of the threats can lead to sharper reductions in the forces than the roughly 25 percent cutback involved in the Pentagon's projected force of 1.6 million.

The worst threat he sees is a force as large as Iraq's before the gulf war, and he argues that his own proposals would be enough to deal handily with that.

He persuaded Mr. Clinton during the election campaign that 1.4 million would be enough. Mr. Aspin is no dove about the use of force, although he has had to court the House Democratic left to keep his chairmanship. He thinks deeper cuts can be made in the military without damage.

How persuasive and tactful he is in administering bitter medicine in 1993 may go far in determining his success in running the world's largest enterprise.

* The prospective new defense chief has lately begun a flirtation with the concept of limited wars, or limited military operations, which could fly directly in the face of the U.S. military's post-Vietnam convictions about the foolhardiness of gradual escalation and half-measures.

General Powell's position, dramatically borne out in the Persian Gulf war, is to go into conflict, as Mr. Aspin once put it, "with everything you can lift" and get it over quickly with minimum loss of life.

An economist who graduated from Yale, Oxford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mr. Aspin did a two-year stint in the Pentagon in the 1960s when he was a young Army officer, serving in one of Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara's special analysis groups.

Elected to Congress in 1970 at age 32, Les Aspin leveraged himself toward the top of the congressional heap on defense with a continuous barrage of press releases assaulting Pentagon waste and inefficiency.

That may have won him the wrong reputation of an anti-defense liberal. But it also eventually positioned him to grab the chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee in a sort of coup in 1985 when, as seventh-ranking Democrat, he ousted the aged Rep. Melvin Price of Illinois.

Mr. Aspin reached his high-water mark as a congressional defense authority just before the gulf war. Mr. Aspin backed the conflict and predicted the outcome quite closely.

His supporters say that move propelled him past Sen. Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee and wanted to hold off on war in favor of sanctions on Iraq.

Mr. Nunn was no longer the chief congressional defense oracle. Mr. Aspin was.

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