The nation can consider itself fortunate that retired Adm. Bobby Ray Inman will not be the next secretary of defense. While we welcomed his nomination in these columns and mistakenly described him as "cool and orderly," his bizarre withdrawal from consideration revealed he is anything but.
His suspicions that Republican Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole and New York Times columnist William Safire conspired against him bordered on the paranoid. His attack on a "new McCarthyism" in the press clashed with the favorable treatment given his selection in the media and his own years as a trusted and trusting inside source on security matters. His rambling revelations about how he anguished over a return to the Washington scene were those of a man who did not really want to lead the Pentagon and considered the post a burden.
Mr. Inman's spectacular exit was so outlandish that political Washington was left to wonder what is the real explanation. Psychologically, we believe the reasons are clear enough. Mr. Inman could not take the stress and scrutiny that comes with holding a Cabinet post -- this despite the fact that his Senate confirmation was practically a shoo-in. The policy considerations are more profound, and they will surely concern the leadership of the military establishment for years to come.
The key security question facing the country is whether the Department of Defense will be given the resources to perform the tasks assigned to it. According to a reliable source, Mr. Inman achieved a certain "level of comfort" with President Clinton after presenting him with a list of eleven points as his conditions for taking the Pentagon job. One was that he could appeal proposed spending cuts directly to the president rather than going through Budget Director Leon Panetta.
But after his nomination was announced, Mr. Inman perceived this was not to be. And so, he reportedly came to the conclusion that he would be a failure at the Pentagon. He did not wish a frontal clash with the administration, as witness his assertion there was "no daylight" -- no disagreement -- between him and the president. Accordingly, if this version of the Inman affair is correct, he either deliberately or subconsciously sought other reasons to explain his shocking withdrawal.
The nation hardly needs to probe or ponder this matter too long. Instead, attention should focus on a new replacement for Defense Secretary Les Aspin who will put an end to the continuing disarray in the administration's national security team.
President Clinton's first year as commander in chief has not been a happy one. Gays in the military, American casualties in Somalia, a rebuffed intervention in Haiti, indecision over Bosnia, declining U.S. clout in NATO, disputes over the shrinking defense budget, then the Aspin-Inman mess -- all these and other problems await the next nominee. Let us hope he will not be carrying a lot of personal baggage that will make his confirmation or his performance more difficult.