Devotees of the "Peter Principle," which posits that people rise to their level of incompetence, will be fortified by the sad story of Les Aspin's woes as secretary of Defense and eagerly watching whether his designated successor, retired Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, also has limits yet to be revealed. Both men are brilliant, steeped in the esoterica of military science and dedicated to a strong defense. Where they differ is in method and personality.
Mr. Aspin gives the appearance of a rumpled professor, ever searching for new ideas and enjoying the interplay of his intellect with the great game of politics. Such characteristics served him well as a McNamara "whiz kid" in the 1960s and in a political career that took him to the chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee before President Clinton tapped him for the Pentagon.
Mr. Inman is the managerial type, courteous and cool and orderly, a prescription that made him an admiral at an early age, then vice chairman of the Defense Intelligence Agency, director of the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, vice chairman of the Central Intelligence Agency and head of a high-tech corporation in Texas.
At the Rose Garden ceremony yesterday when his appointment was announced, Mr. Inman cautioned against too much focus on his intelligence background and made this statement: "In these last ten years I've learned a lot about how business works, and I would hope to spend a lot of my time on bringing the best business practices to the Department of Defense. . . The public is less concerned about what we're doing overseas or our commitments than whether we are getting a dollar value for a dollar spent on defense."
That latter comment is open to challenge, but the contrast with Mr. Aspin's approach could hardly be greater. The current secretary got enmeshed in overseas commitments (tragically in Somalia), threw himself into strategizing for the post-Cold War world, conducted a "bottom up review" of the military force structure needed for the future and went to bat for as big a Pentagon budget as he could get. His undisciplined habits worried the big brass, as we suggested they would when he was appointed a year ago, and he was not the CEO the biggest business in the world requires.
On paper, Mr. Inman should overcome these shortcomings. He has management experience in both the public and private sectors and knows how to find his ways through the corridors of power in the vast military-industrial complex.
One other very important factor: The next defense secretary brings to the Clinton cabinet its first member to proclaim publicly that he voted for George Bush and needed several talks with Mr. Clinton before he determined he could work with the president at a suitable "level of comfort." It was an extraordinary display of assurance and independence from a professional who should bring much-needed qualities to the administration's national security team.