How the Military Brass Captured Clinton

January 04, 1994|By SAUL LANDAU

WASHINGTON — Washington.--One year into his administration, Bill Clinton finds himself a virtual hostage of the military-industrial complex. In case after case, when push has come to shove, he has given in to the entrenched power of the Pentagon, the CIA and the defense establishment.

The forced resignation of Defense Secretary Les Aspin and the nomination of his successor, Bobby Ray Inman, a retired admiral, amounted to a white flag from President Clinton -- his public surrender of control over military and intelligence policy.

Admiral Inman, a Republican, former director of the National Security Agency, former deputy director of the CIA and former arms contractor, embodies the forces that hold Mr. Clinton captive. When Admiral Inman accepted the nomination, he announced in the president's presence that he was doing so only after Mr. Clinton had assured him a free hand.

The admiral's assertion of power only President Clinton's year-long abdication of civilian authority over the military.

Last January, the president took advantage of a budget-cutting climate to diminish the military's share. But despite the tight fiscal atmosphere and the absence of a formidable enemy, the Pentagon retained $261 billion -- down from about $290 billion. The Pentagon's reproductive organs were still outperforming the government's civilian brain in policy skirmishes.

The next battle was over admitting homosexuals in the military. Here, the military fomented a controversy and forced Mr. Clinton compromise his initially principled policy. It was the first open revolt, and the president caved in -- instead of commanding the military to follow orders.

In the spring, the CIA and military advisers persuaded an initially hesitant Mr. Clinton to authorize the bombing of Baghdad to retaliate against Saddam Hussein's alleged role in an assassination plot against former President Bush. Although Mr. Bush had previously ordered hit teams to get the Iraqi leader, national-security advisers counseled the president that failure to after Mr. Hussein would show U.S. weakness. But what the bombing showed was Mr. Clinton's willingness to kill Iraqi civilians.

On Bosnia, candidate Clinton talked a tough, humanitarian line and received strong liberal backing for U.S. intervention to stop the carnage. But Gen. Colin Powell summed up the military consensus: ''We do deserts, not mountains.'' Mr. Clinton's moral resolve evaporated in the face of military opposition. The military may have had a point about the feasibility of intervention, but the president still looked bad backing down.

On his summer trip to Asia, emboldened by advice from the CIA and some defense intellectuals, Mr. Clinton threatened North Korea with virtual demolition should it continue to keep hidden its nuclear program. But he backed down after other military officials explained the imprudence of the course he had outlined. Once again, initial saber-rattling led to subsequent retreat.

In Somalia, the military played the poor-little-victim game with Mr. Clinton after 18 GIs died in an attack. Les Aspin was the fall guy, with the implication that civilians could not run the show. But it was the U.S. commander in Somalia who did not fortify the exposed unit with other troops. And it was the U.S. military that cheerfully took on the disastrous role of chasing after Mohammed Farah Aidid.

The military and intelligence community further embarrassed Mr. Clinton in Haiti. He had pledged to restore democracy by helping to return ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power. But the Pentagon resisted playing an assertive role. When a ship carrying U.S. military trainers was turned away by Haitian hoodlums, the president looked weak and foolish.

The CIA's role in the Haiti fiasco amounted almost to sabotage. Brian Latell, a CIA analyst for Latin America, cast doubt on the wisdom of Mr. Clinton's backing for President Aristide. Stunned senators heard Mr. Latell impugn Father Aristide's character and praise the Haitian military and police, who had committed documented cases of human-rights violations. Mr. Latell's disinformation created anti-Aristide headlines, diluted his support and undermined administration policy. But the embarrassed Mr. Clinton did not order CIA Director James Woolsey to fire Mr. Latell or station him to Maracaibo to clean toilets at the U.S. consulate. Instead, the White House appeared to waffle on Aristide.

These incidents were cleverly trumpeted by pro-military columnists and politicians to demonstrate that Mr. Clinton cannot handle foreign policy. But what the incidents actually demonstrated was that the president cannot handle the military and the CIA; they are handling him.

Sensing his weakness, the Pentagon has again reasserted itself, demanding an additional $50 billion for ''military needs.'' Outraged budget director Leon Panetta cried foul, but then granted 60 percent of the request, which will bring the Pentagon's budget to nearly $300 billion -- just where it was before the congressional cuts at the beginning of the year.

Bill Clinton's New Year's Resolution should be to act like the commander-in-chief. Unless he summons the will and the courage to wrest control of military and intelligence matters, his ability to govern will be impaired -- as will the cherished notion of civilian authority in our democracy.

L Saul Landau is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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