Secretary of Defense? No Way I'm Out of Here

January 23, 1994|By CHARLES W. CORDDRY

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- By New Year's Day, Bobby Ray Inman was having second thoughts about becoming defense secretary and was considering ways to get out of it.

Blaming elements of the press must have come to mind. He had earlier had a charmed life as an admiral and top-flight intelligence official, with mostly rave notices, and he was not about to expose himself to the press and political attacks that he now decided would afflict him in the cabinet post. So, little more than two weeks after President Clinton had named him, Mr. Inman had worked out a rationale for withdrawing.

But the more plausible case is that Bobby Inman, hitherto a picture of self-confidence, had a rush of doubt about his ability to handle a job he didn't want anyway -- to try to build and manage the presently planned post-Cold War defense force within the budgetary limits planned by the Clinton administration.

"I should never have let myself get talked into something my heart was not in," the retired admiral said in a telephone interview from his home in Austin, Texas, Thursday night.

The Inman episode focuses attention once more on the immensity of the American defense secretary's task and on the question of how much success anyone can make of running the world's largest enterprise.

Certainly his heart must be in it. Timing is important. A secretary needs a bit of good fortune in the circumstances in which he holds the job, say, during a time of military expansion and ample money, as during Caspar W. Weinberger's first years in the Reagan administration. The result was a superb military force -- though one that perhaps should have cost less under tighter management.

One of the most successful secretaries, on the other hand, was Melvin R. Laird, the eight-term Wisconsin congressman pressed into service by President Richard M. Nixon in 1969 at a time of Vietnam war tension and Pentagon disfavor.

In four years, Mr. Laird achieved three main objectives -- 'N withdrawing U.S. forces from Vietnam, ending the draft by switching to all-volunteer forces, and cutting the budget.

Cutting back from Vietnam war levels, or after the Korean war, was by no means comparable, however, to the post-Cold War task confronting the next defense secretary whom Mr. Clinton names in his much-troubled effort to assemble a compatible national security team.

Mr. Clinton is dropping former House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin from the Pentagon post after a year's service. Whatever the grievances at the White House and in the uniformed military against Mr. Aspin, he had presided over a planned retrenchment and reorganization of the military forces that would be gradual, keep up a high state of combat readiness, and safeguard the technological edge demonstrated in the Persian Gulf war.

It was already apparent as Mr. Aspin prepared to leave that a heavy budget squeeze would jeopardize the multi-year build-down plan. He in fact was was engaged in a public squabble over the issue with the federal budget director, Leon Panetta, when Mr. Clinton announced on Dec. 16 that the defense chief was resigning.

The next day the president presented Mr. Inman as his new choice for defense secretary; soon the retired admiral was wondering how he got into that fix.

He wished, he said in the Thursday night interview, that he had never gone to Washington in December and engaged in the super-secret talks that led to his selection.

Did the persuasive Mr. Clinton push him farther than he wanted to go, that is, into something he didn't want to do?

"Yes," Mr. Inman replied. "He made a strong case that I was the only one" for the job, that his appointment would ensure "bipartisan support" for him and the defense program.

"I really didn't want the job," Mr. Inman said. The more he looked at current defense issues that would confront him the more he really didn't want the job.

When he resigned as President Reagan's Deputy Director of Central Intelligence in June, 1982, and retired from the Navy shortly afterward, national security was his whole life, he said. He had 30 years service, the first intelligence officer ever to attain four-star admiral's rank.

But after 11 1/2 years away from Washington, he said, he found a great conflict between the private business world he said he now enjoyed and the public world he had left behind. He preferred to stay in Austin.

Why didn't he decide and act on that in the first place and thus avoid putting Mr. Clinton and Mr. Aspin, who now must stay on for a while, in such an awkward position? "That's a legitimate question," he replied.

As he contemplated a defense outlook that almost certainly would force cuts in combat readiness and numbers of units during his term, Mr. Inman must have reckoned that, if he did not face failure, he hardly could look forward to thumping success.

In his frame of mind, as he and his family read the few attacks among all the praise for his nomination, he found his way out of the job that he "really didn't want."

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