Perry for the Pentagon

January 25, 1994

President Clinton's star-crossed search for a secretary of defense might at last have chanced upon a star in William J. Perry, a steady beacon of good sense and military expertise in an administration too much given to gyration. As deputy to the outgoing secretary, Les Aspin, Mr. Perry took care of the maintenance of an effective force structure in a period of post-Soviet downsizing while Mr. Aspin tried with mixed success to handle policy decisions.

Now the tough, out-front issues will be Mr. Perry's in one of the most complex jobs in government. That he hesitated, considering the burdens on his family, is testimony to his sense of priorities. That he accepted despite insulting proffers to other candidates shows that he has an insider's charitable view of the wondrous ways in which this administration stumbles in personnel selection.

The nation learned, just in time, that Bobby Ray Inman is not emotionally prepared to enter the very hot Washington kitchen. Anyone with even a very short memory would have known that Sen. Sam Nunn's very public disapproval of the first Clinton year would have made him an awkward figure at the Pentagon.

So Bill Perry it is, and he might very well turn out to be as fortuitous a selection as Dick Cheney was for George Bush after the lamentable John Tower nomination. Once confirmed by the Senate, and this looks like it will be easy, the new defense secretary will very quickly have to prove he can defend the upcoming Pentagon budget in congressional testimony. Since it is very much his budget, he hardly needs a preparatory crash course.

In welcoming his new assignment as a "real privilege" -- contrast that with Mr. Inman's repeated assertions he did not want the job -- Mr. Perry placed extraordinary emphasis on the need to reform the Pentagon's methods of developing, ordering and financing new equipment. What is required is a procurement policy that enables the military establishment to tap into civilian-sector technologies to effect the cost-savings required by a shrinking defense budget while identifying those weapons systems -- nuclear submarines, fighter aircraft, armored vehicles -- that only established defense contractors can handle. At stake here, as Mr. Perry noted, is the readiness and affordability of U.S. forces five and ten years down the road.

If this requires an "industrial policy," despite its political implications, the fact is that this has always been the case in the defense industry. The alternatives would be nationalization of defense plants or soaring military sales abroad, a proliferation process already too much in full swing.

These are technical gut issues which do not attract public attention like gays-in-the-military or combat-roles-for-women. With Mr. Perry at the helm, the nation may have a defense secretary with the know-how to take the long view even as he confronts the day-to-day alarums of a hot-seat Washington job overseeing a globe in turmoil.

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