WASHINGTON -- The timing of the resignation of Secretary of Defense Les Aspin after less than a year on the job was surprising, but not the fact of his early departure. Of the 18 individuals who have held the position since the armed services were consolidated into a Department of Defense 46 years ago, only six have served a full four-year term, and of those six only three longer than that.
Aspin, from all accounts, never meshed with the military chiefs whose loyalty he needed to succeed in a job that demands organizational talents as well as intellect. He was renowned previously as a scholar and innovative thinker on defense matters as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. And he is credited by critics such as Republican Sen. John McCain, the former Vietnam prisoner of war, with conducting a splendid review of the nation's defense structure for the post-Cold War era. But the Pentagon often seemed a ship adrift under him.
Early on, he appeared to invite congressional opposition when President Clinton announced he intended to lift the ban on gays in the military. More significantly, in McCain's view, he undermined his congressional support when he went to Capitol Hill to brief his old colleagues on U.S. policy in Somalia and seemed instead to be asking them what should be done. His stock sunk deeper when it was disclosed that he had turned down a request for more armored vehicles in Somalia prior to an assault that resulted in many American deaths, and said later he regretted the decision.
The final blow may have been his dispute with budget director Leon Panetta over a proposed $50 billion cut in defense, which Aspin took public in a television appearance. In general, he was too public in the various disputes in which he was involved, leaving the impression -- however erroneous -- that he was not a team player.
McCain and others noted that there is a world of difference between being a congressional committee chairman and running bureaucracy as huge as the Pentagon's. But two of the six previous secretaries who had served four-year terms were congressional leaders -- Republicans Melvin R. Laird in the first Nixon term and Dick Cheney in the Bush administration. Both had strong support from their subordinate military leaders.
Cheney says now that Aspin brought a "legislative style" to the Pentagon that emphasized compromise -- a style that did not always please his military subordinates who wanted an out-and-out advocate of their positions. Also, Cheney says, the fact that Clinton's prime focus was on domestic issues, to the point where military needs appeared to take a back seat, made Aspin's task in dealing with the military chiefs all the more difficult.
New Pentagon chiefs have always been judged on the question of whether they could assert authority and policy over strong-willed and dedicated uniformed service chiefs, and avoid being taken into camp by them. The reorganization that put the departments of Army, Navy and Air Force under one boss in 1947 inevitably triggered interservice competition for dollars and influence, intensifying the pulling and hauling on the defense secretary.
Some, like Robert McNamara, whose seven years under John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson is the longevity record, was an organizational whiz who largely kept the service chiefs in line. So did Harold Brown, Jimmy Carter's Pentagon boss, and Laird. Others, like Caspar Weinberger, who served over six years under Ronald Reagan, went into the Pentagon known as "Cap the Knife" on his record as a budget-cutter in California and in the Nixon administration but soon came to be regarded as putty in the military chiefs' hands. However, he did serve under a president to whom the sky was the limit on building up the nation's defense.
Bobby Ray Inman, Clinton's choice to succeed Aspin, as a heavily experienced military officer in strong standing with Congress, should command immediate respect from the Pentagon's military chiefs. But in a period in which the defense establishment likely will be facing more downsizing, he will have to make tough calls that will not always sit well with his old colleagues in uniform.