WASHINGTON -- Les Aspin's sudden departure as secretary of defense yesterday was preceded by a loss of confidence in his leadership by senior U.S. military commanders, an unwillingness on his part to make deeper cuts in Pentagon spending and a fateful decision that may have cost American lives in Somalia.
Shortly after President Clinton announced he was accepting Mr. Aspin's resignation, one veteran defense official who knew Mr. Aspin well sought to sum up his brief Pentagon stint.
"Les was just in over his head," the official said.
In recent weeks, Mr. Aspin, 55, has waged a public battle with budget chief Leon Panetta over Mr. Aspin's request for defense spending $40 billion to $50 billion above Mr. Clinton's campaign pledge for a five-year reduction. Some budget officials said Mr. Aspin's proposals for next year would be $25 billion beyond Mr. ** Clinton's guidelines. And Pentagon civilians and the veteran defense official said Mr. Aspin's refusal to make further cuts had irritated the White House.
Earlier in the day, a chipper Mr. Aspin wished reporters happy holidays after outlining a compromise plan for the embattled C-17 Air Force cargo jet.
But later, a breakfast meeting with reporters scheduled for this morning was abruptly canceled, and still later, Mr. Aspin appeared somewhat shaken in the Oval Office, where Mr. Clinton made the announcement.
Mr. Aspin had repeatedly ruled out resignation since he came under fire for refusing to provide tanks and armored troop carriers for U.S. soldiers in Mogadishu shortly before Americans died in combat. As recently as Sunday, he said his job was "more interesting and more challenging than I could have possibly imagined" when asked on "Meet the Press" if he planned to stay in his post. He also said he didn't think there was "any problem" with his tenure.
Mr. Aspin had rejected the request for armored reinforcements 10 days before 18 Americans were killed and 77 wounded during an ill-fated mission to capture Mohammed Farah Aidid.
Army officials said at least three of those killed and more than 30 of the wounded might have avoided injury if Mr. Aspin had approved the request from field commanders.
Aides said Mr. Aspin was more concerned about the appearance of additional weapons going to Somalia while there was growing opposition in Congress to U.S. involvement there.
As the facts emerged, a bipartisan howl went up in Congress for Mr. Aspin's head. Later, he candidly admitted his mistake, adding that if he had known such a loss of lives was at stake, "I would have made a very different decision."
Mr. Aspin's mistake only added to opposition building among senior U.S. military commanders. "Some want Aspin fired," said one official of the Joint Chiefs who listed a series of Aspin actions that riled the brass.
At Mr. Clinton's request, Mr. Aspin moved swiftly to implement a new policy to end the military ban on gay soldiers. But in doing so, Mr. Aspin ignored concerns of then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell and other military commanders. "It could have been handled a lot better for the military and for Clinton if Aspin had used some diplomacy," said one senior officer.