Aspin, beset by missteps, struggles to stay in his job Defense secretary shifting his tactics

November 15, 1993|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- After barely 10 months in office, Defense Secretary Les Aspin is fighting to keep the job he prepared for all his adult life.

His standing among the military, Congress and the Clinton administration has been battered by a series of gaffes, policy reversals and, most of all, his ill-fated decision not to send armored reinforcements to Somalia in September.

Mr. Aspin has acknowledged that the reinforcements might have helped to reduce the heavy casualties during a disastrous battle in Mogadishu on Oct. 3, which killed 18 U.S. troops and wounded 78 others.

Since then, Mr. Aspin, 55, has been battling a growing perception that he has been irreparably harmed. While military officers question his judgment, policy-makers fear he will give the military carte blanche in the future.

"He won't ever recover, both in perception and in fact" from his Somalia decision, predicted one embittered Army officer who works closely with Mr. Aspin's office. "He's damaged goods."

The one-time Pentagon whiz kid claims to be unfazed by the turmoil and vows to press ahead with the assignment President Clinton gave him -- namely, reshaping the U.S. military into a leaner, technologically advanced combat power for the next century.

"We continually get assurances that the president is satisfied, very satisfied, with Secretary Aspin's performance," Pentagon spokeswoman Kathleen deLaski said last week. "There are no plans for anyone here to resign."

But Mr. Aspin is making subtle, important changes in his work for reasons that have as much to do with self-preservation as his desire to help Mr. Clinton regain his foreign policy footing.

He has told his close associates he wants to play a more forceful role in administration policy debates. He believes his efforts to be more cooperative than confrontational with the State Department and the National Security Council have led to problems in Somalia, Bosnia and Haiti that ultimately cost him some of his vital credibility with Congress and the military.

To avoid another debacle like the one in Somalia, Mr. Aspin has taken great pains to pay more careful attention to message traffic, deployment orders and reports from military commanders the field, these associates say. He now uses his 7:30 a.m. staff briefings to study current military operations, making a particular effort to keep abreast of the "operational details" from Somalia, the official said.

The official said the deaths of U.S. troops in the Oct. 3 battle "really brought it home" that Mr. Aspin cannot fail to give commanders everything they need to carry out a mission.

Mr. Aspin, a former Wisconsin congressman who survived hard-knuckle political battles when he headed the House Armed Services Committee, has also engaged in behind-the-scenes damage control to stop a bitter partisan campaign to force him from office.

Two GOP senators and 32 House Republicans have called for his resignation, accusing him -- in the words of Rep. Bill Archer of Texas -- of "inexcusable negligence in a Somalia policy that put political motivations above the safety of American troops."

In recent weeks, Mr. Aspin has been calling former colleagues and dispatching top aides to recount to them all the circumstances of his decision to defer the tank request.

Gaining support

This yielded results last week when 41 House Democrats -- including Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, Armed Services Committee Chairman Ronald V. Dellums of California, and Democratic Caucus Chairman Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland -- co-signed a letter to all House members defending Mr. Aspin against the Republican attacks.

Among the signatories was Rep. Frank McCloskey of Indiana, a critic of the administration's Somalia policy who has called for Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher's resignation instead.

And like any politician under siege, Mr. Aspin has started to shore up his "constituent" base by getting out more often to see the military's rank-and-file, whose trust and loyalty he knows he cannot afford to lose.

These trips, such as an unpublicized visit to Fort Bragg, N.C., last Wednesday to talk with super-secret Delta Force commandos who recently returned from Somalia, have been exhilarating for him and the troops, the Pentagon official said.

"He's hunkering down and doing his job," the Pentagon official said.

In his short time at the Pentagon, Mr. Aspin has relished his role as the administration's preeminent defense thinker, providing both a theoretical framework and practical knowledge to a president who once had to be advised not to refer to Navy warships as "boats."

Highly knowledgeable

As a liberal gadfly in Congress and later a moderate, pro-defense reformer, Mr. Aspin accumulated an encyclopedic knowledge of military issues. That and his impeccable credentials -- degrees from Yale, Oxford and MIT and experience as one of Robert McNamara's whiz kids in Pentagon systems analysis in the 1960s -- made him an irresistible candidate to lead Mr. Clinton's Defense Department.

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