Top military brass break bread with the president

August 11, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, preparing to name a new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, invited 15 potential candidates for the nation's top military post to dinner at the White House last night.

Mr. Clinton chose the extraordinary venue of a White House dinner to meet the officers and their wives before picking a successor to Gen. Colin Powell, architect of America's victory in the Persian Gulf War in 1991, who will retire next month.

The decision could set Mr. Clinton's stamp on the military for the remainder of his term.

Military sources said that among those invited to dinner, three officers seemed to be front-runners for the post: Air Force Gen. George "Lee" Butler, Adm. Paul Miller and Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Hoar.

General Butler, commander of the Air Force's Air Combat Command, is regarded as an intellectual. He is seen as a virtual carbon copy of retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who served as President Bush's national security adviser.

Admiral Miller, the Atlantic Fleet commander, met with Mr. Clinton in March, when the president visited the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt to bolster his image with the military.

Admiral Miller, who impressed the president greatly, sources say, has a reputation as an innovator. His motto: "The old ways just won't sell."

General Hoar, who commands America's rapid-deployment forces, is regarded as a warrior. If a crisis such as the Persian Gulf War erupts on Mr. Clinton's watch, General Hoar is seen as the kind of experienced gunfighter that the president and his civilian advisers would need.

"Hoar is seen as an iron man, a guns-and-missiles kind of guy, and right now there are no real gunfighters at the top levels in the Clinton administration," said Bob Gaskin, a retired Air Force colonel with Business Executives for National Security, a lobby group for defense reform.

General Hoar served as an infantry company commander in Vietnam. He has supervised U.S. operations in Somalia and in the no-fly zones over Iraq.

No Marine Corps officer has ever served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, although they are eligible. Thus, if Mr. Clinton picks General Hoar, "It would send a real message to the military: 'I am going to make change, and this is my thumb print on your operation,' " said Mr. Gaskin.

The officers at last night's dinner were in town for a regularly scheduled conference of the top brass. The 15 candidates for General Powell's job are Adm. David Jeremiah, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs; the four service chiefs; and the 10 commanders in chief of America's far-flung military forces.

Under the normal rotation among the services, the Air Force would be next in line, but its current chief of staff, Gen. Merrill McPeak, probably lost support when he told Congress that Defense Secretary Les Aspin's plan for a 1.4-million-strong active-duty military would be inadequate to fight another Desert Storm and would be more like "Desert Drizzle."

Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, commander of America's European forces, was, like Henry Kissinger, born in Europe.

Although eminently qualified for the top slot, his birthplace could be a liability.

As one colonel quipped, "Shalikashvili might come across as a Henry Kissinger in uniform telling Americans their sons have to die in Bosnia. That won't sell in Peoria."

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