Inman's exit highlights Clinton's security woes

January 20, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The sudden exit of defense nominee Bobby Ray Inman put the Pentagon back in the command of a lame-duck secretary yesterday, and perhaps more important, underscored President Clinton's inability to put together a smooth-running national security operation.

With the Pentagon facing its most contentious budget fight in years, the task of negotiating the nation's defense budget now falls to Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, a man the White House has already given a public vote of no confidence.

A going-away ceremony honoring Mr. Aspin was "postponed indefinitely" yesterday, and his replacement almost certainly will not have been confirmed until after Mr. Clinton's proposed annual budget is submitted to Congress in early February.

"At a time that rather basic decisions are going to be made about our level of national security in the post-Cold War world, it's an awfully sensitive time to have this drift," said a presidential historian, Michael R. Beschloss.

This perception is shared by veterans groups, which have viewed Mr. Clinton -- and his plans for the Pentagon -- with suspicion from the beginning.

"I don't think [defense] is a priority with him," said Jack Powell, executive director of the Central Florida chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America. "Clinton needs money for other things he wants to do, and to the extent he doesn't have a strong secretary of defense to fight for defense is the extent to which people can run wild cutting the defense budget."

G. Michael Schlee, director of national security and foreign relations for the American Legion, said that his organization has been advocating a slow pace on military downsizing and creating a national security vision before making cuts that might prove to be too deep.

"We've seen no real vision of where we should be going," Mr. Schlee said yesterday. "And obviously we have concerns now because we don't know who the secretary is going to be. And it's an agency where the budget decisions that are made affect not only the nation's security, but the lives of an extended family of 7 or 8 million people."

The more important issue, some analysts say, is that Mr. Clinton is formulating broad new foreign policy goals and obligations for the United States, apparently without much input from the brass.

"This guy is making new commitments, changing old ones and making rapid changes in foreign policy," said retired Army Col. Don M. Snider, director of political and military studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "He essentially is putting the security of Western Europe back in the hands of Western Europeans, made a new strategic commitment to Russia and negotiated some unknown commitments to former Soviet republics on nuclear arms. Not bad for one week's work. But the question is this: Without a Cabinet head [in the Pentagon], does he have an understanding of what . . . the rationale is for when you now use military force?"

Some Republicans seized on this same point yesterday.

"To go this long without having a national security team in place is a real problem," said former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, an often-mentioned possible GOP challenger to Mr. Clinton in 1996. "I think it's dangerous because it's already caused some problems."

Mr. Cheney cited uncertain steps made by the Clinton administration in Haiti and Somalia and alluded to the recent departure of Clifton R. Wharton Jr., the State Department's No. 2 official, who was reported to be dismayed by the administration's inaction in Bosnia.

"There's a sense that the team has not coalesced and come together yet toward being able to manage national security policy on a day-to-day basis," he said.

[Last week, the White House asked Sen. Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat who is head of the Armed Services Committee, to consider leading the Pentagon, the New York Times quoted administration sources as saying. He declined.]

Almost everyone, Mr. Cheney included, hailed the president's announcement Dec. 16 that Mr. Aspin was being replaced by Mr. Inman.

But Mr. Inman's performance Tuesday as he withdrew his name was so inexplicable that opinion was divided -- even among Mr. Clinton's critics -- on whether it was fair to blame the president.

Mr. Inman, in a rambling statement, said he didn't want to put up with the kind of the news media criticism being leveled at him -- but he conceded that the media's coverage had been overwhelmingly positive and aimed his ire at a columnist who'd written only one column against his nomination.

Some, like Mr. Beschloss, say the Inman episode provides a telling insight into the Clinton administration's competence. "There had to be earlier hints he was like this -- and they should have come out in the interview process," Mr. Beschloss said. "When that doesn't happen, typically, the process was too hasty and too secretive, two elements that were present here."

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