Mattress Test for Defense Policy

February 13, 1994|By EUGENE MCCARTHY

December 16, in his statement announcing the termination of Les Aspin's service as secretary of defense, President Clinton reintroduced a version of ''How do you sleep?'' as a standard for judging public officials.

The president said that, as a result of Secretary Aspin's service, ''when our citizens go to bed tonight, we can do so secure in the knowledge that our nation is building the right forces and acquiring the right capabilities for the new era.''

I felt no insecurity on going to bed over whether we had the right capabilities for the new era, either before or during Mr. Aspin's secretariat-ship. Nor did I have trouble sleeping during that period. In any case I was reassured by the president's assurance that I need not have worried about what I hadn't been worrying about.

The president's enthusiasm for his replacement nominee, Bobby Ray Inman, encouraged me to believe that with Admiral Inman as secretary of defense, I could go to bed and sleep not only in peace and security, but with a level of comfort shared by Mr. Clinton and Bobby Ray.

In fact, I anticipated sleeping with a security I had not felt since Mamie Eisenhower reported that President Eisenhower's last prayer before going to sleep was to ask God to look after the nation until he, Eisenhower, awoke.

I accepted that if the prayer was heard, that I and the nation (at least that part of it that slept in the same time zone as Eisenhower did) would be better cared for while the president slept.

Jack Valenti, when an aide to President Johnson, did not invoke God as a stand-in, but did declare that he, Valenti, slept better knowing that Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, evidently either asleep or awake.

I did have some reservations about Mr. Inman's nomination. He was reported to be a person who knew the numbers and who made no small mistakes. Robert McNamara was noted as having these same qualities or gifts when he was proposed for the office of secretary of defense.

I was not reassured by Mr. Inman's statement that he was favorably inclined toward the ideas of Zbigniew Brzezinski, who in one of his more recent pronouncements on the state of the world warned of a ''current Central American dilemma'' which he said was likely to ''fuse with a wider systematic crisis of Mexico.''

I was not moved by Mr. Inman's statement that his business experience would help put the military on a ''business'' basis. And I was moved to ask, ''What business?'' and also ''whether the military can or should be run like a business.''

On second thought, I concluded that I might have misread Mr. Inman's statement about his business experience. His business ventures had not worked out well, judged by conventional business standards, but if judged in anticipation of some of the things Mr. Inman was expected to do as secretary of defense, they might have been very useful.

In one of his companies, the number of employees was reduced from 10,000 to 3,000 persons, a downsizing comparable to what is projected as desirable, if not necessary, in the armed services. One company he was associated with, defense-related, went out of business, thus eliminating an unnecessary defense supplier.

And there was a bankruptcy, or near-bankruptcy, along the way, an experience which might help the secretary handle the Defense Department's budget which, it is now estimated, will be between $30 billion to $50 billion above earlier estimates.

But Mr. Inman is gone. So is Mr. Aspin. I assume that I can still go to bed feeling secure, but what of my sleep? Mr. Aspin was first proposed as ''the best man'' for the post. Mr. Inman, I assume, was considered as ''the second best.'' It appears that William J. Perry (Mr. ''High Tech'') is at most ''the third best man'' for the office.

It may be time to return to the Harry Truman policy of never nominating anyone for an office as ''best,'' but simply as ''good.'' With none but ''good'' persons in office during the Truman administration, I slept well.

Eugene McCarthy, former U.S. senator from Minnesota, is the author of ''A Colony of the World: The U.S. Today.'' He wrote this commentary for the Christian Science Monitor.

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