WASHINGTON -- Gen. Colin. L. Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has told Defense Secretary Les Aspin that he wants to leave office two or three months before the end of his term, several close associates said yesterday.
The associates said the general made his request in part because he does not want to defend budget cuts that he believes are too big.
It had nothing to do with his position opposing President Clinton's attempt to lift the ban on gays in the military, the associates said.
General Powell told former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney months ago that he wanted to leave before his term expired Sept. 30, explaining then that he wanted to give his successor more influence this summer in shaping the Pentagon's long-term budget, the associates said.
He had also told Mr. Cheney he would not serve a third two-year term as chairman, even if former President Bush were re-elected.
But friends and associates said General Powell's desire to retire early was reinforced by a series of extraordinary public disagreements between the Joint Chiefs and President Clinton over homosexuals in the military and reductions in military spending and troop levels.
Mr. Clinton wants to cut military spending by $60 billion more than Mr. Bush had recommended by 1997 and wants to reduce troop strength by 200,000 more than General Powell favors.
While General Powell will have to testify on the next Pentagon budget in April and May -- even if Mr. Clinton ultimately grants his request to retire early -- the general's associates and friends said he was more concerned about having to testify during the summer about long-term spending plans.
"There's no question Colin will be confronted repeatedly with having to carry out new policy guidance that may be at odds with his previous public positions," said one close associate.
"He's the consummate good soldier, but he'll have a lot of congressmen asking why he is recanting his earlier positions. He'll get tired of that real fast."
General Powell's friends and associates said there was no personal rancor between the general and Mr. Clinton or between the general and Mr. Aspin.
Mr. Aspin is considering General Powell's request but has not decided how long to recommend to Mr. Clinton that the general should stay, associates said.
General Powell serves at the president's discretion and has made it clear he will serve as long as Mr. Aspin and Mr. Clinton want.
Only three of the 11 chairmen of the Joint Chiefs preceding General Powell have left office before their terms expired since the office was created in 1949.
Col. F. William Smullen, General Powell's spokesman, insisted yesterday that the general intends to serve out his term.
A senior aide to Mr. Aspin said, "Any conversations between the secretary and General Powell are private."
But he did not deny that General Powell had requested to leave his job early.
General Powell's friends and associates would not say yesterday whether he wanted to leave office before July 15, when Mr. Aspin is to produce for the president an executive order lifting the ban on homosexuals in the military, which the general has strongly opposed.
The general's supporters bristle at any suggestion that General Powell wants to leave office early to avoid confronting difficult decisions that could tarnish his record.
They say he simply wants to depart with his professional integrity intact and to allow his successor a greater say in important Defense Department decisions affecting the military's future.
"This has nothing to do with the gays issue," said one close friend of General Powell's. "This is a personal thing that he decided last year.
The last few weeks have not been the happiest for General Powell, who while officially nonpartisan has been closely identified with the national security policies of the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
General Powell, 55, served as deputy national security adviser and national security adviser to Mr. Reagan. Mr. Bush appointed him chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in October 1989.
The most popular and politically powerful chairman of the Joint Chiefs in recent history, General Powell has been pilloried in editorials in several newspapers for opposing so forcefully Mr. Clinton's plan to abolish the ban on homosexuals in the military.
On Friday, General Powell is expected to announce a plan to reduce overlapping roles and missions in the military. But it is a proposal that is far short of what Mr. Clinton had endorsed in his campaign.
The likelihood that General Powell will exit early is certain to focus attention on candidates to succeed him.
While not written in law or regulation, the chairman's job traditionally rotates among the services, and it would be the Air Force's turn to provide the general's successor.
Mr. Clinton will make that choice, based on Mr. Aspin's recommendation.
A leading contender appears to be Gen. Lee Butler, 53, the head of the U.S. Strategic Command, which controls the nation's nuclear arsenal.
General Butler's cerebral style meshes with Mr. Aspin's academic approach to issues, but some Pentagon officials say the waning importance of nuclear forces may work against him. General Butler, wary of saying anything that could hurt his chances, has declined all interviews since October.
Another candidate is Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, 57, the Air Force chief of staff.
An F-100 fighter pilot in Vietnam, General McPeak is said to be more willing than the other Joint Chiefs to work out a mutually acceptable solution to the issue of homosexuals.
But as an avowed advocate of air power, General McPeak might be seen as too parochial to head the Joint Chiefs, Pentagon officials said.