Retirement rumors spur Powell offensive General denies rift with Clinton

February 11, 1993|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- In a morning-long media blitz, Gen. Colin L. Powell, the nation's top military officer, fought back yesterday against accusations of insubordination and persistent rumors that he will quit to protest Clinton administration defense policies.

General Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he might retire before his term expires in September but that it would not be over any policy disagreements with President Clinton.

In fact, he said more emphatically than ever that he was willing to cut the defense budget and military personnel more than the Bush administration had advocated. The cuts demanded by President Clinton, which would be even deeper than those sought by his predecessor, could be achieved without hurting the quality of the armed forces, he said.

"I am not unhappy. I am not crosswise with the administration. I look forward to supporting the president's budget," the senior military adviser to the president said.

"There is nothing, nothing, nothing of substance behind reports I am planning to retire early over some unhappiness, disgruntlement or fit of pique with the administration."

General Powell, 55, whom the British press dubbed "the world's most powerful black man" during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, is an astute military and political tactician who prefers to maneuver behind the scenes and knows how to use the news media to his advantage.

Yesterday, he engaged in a high-profile offensive, first by giving a network television interview on his way to work and then by seeking out other TV news outlets to portray himself as a good soldier ready to do the bidding of his commander-in-chief. The general even called CNN anchorman Bernard Shaw at home to make it known he was available for an interview, a Pentagon official said.

General Powell sought to counter a New York Times story that he might step down before the end of his second two-year term as chairman because of disagreements over budget cuts. His term runs through Sept. 30.

Although he could be renominated to a third term, General Powell wants to end his 35-year military career when his current term expires, and leading corporations and political parties have already bombarded him with offers for a second career.

He has virtually no political enemies; Democrats and Republicans regard his conservative views on national security and liberal leanings on domestic policy as ideal for a future presidential candidate.

White House spokesman George Stephanopoulos said yesterday that Mr. Clinton wants General Powell to complete his full term as chairman.

"I will stay for whatever period of my term that the president wishes," General Powell responded later on CNN. "I serve ultimately at his pleasure. I had not heard that, but I'm delighted to hear that."

General Powell said he wanted "to leave a month or so" before his term ended "in order to get my family resettled," but he stopped short of saying exactly when.

The general also said he was impressed by Mr. Clinton's commitment to maintaining the quality in the military. "We jTC shouldn't let the impression be created around the country that we are fighting the president on this," he said.

Rumors had circulated for months that General Powell and other members of the joint chiefs might quit as Mr. Clinton moved to lift the military's ban on homosexuals. But officials close to the chiefs said repeatedly that none of them would quit over that issue.

The chiefs have "constituencies to represent" and were angered by suggestions in the news media that their opposition to lifting the gay ban smacked of insubordination, one official said.

Suggestions linger that one or more of the service chiefs might quit if ordered to make radical changes in the structure of the military forces, such as precipitous cuts in strength in Europe or a shift of significant combat roles from active-duty forces to the National Guard.

Mr. Clinton has steered clear of proposing such dramatic changes, preferring to stick with a plan devised by Mr. Aspin to cut defense spending by $60 billion through 1997. Those cuts would mean 4 percent less spending on defense than the Bush administration had called for.

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