As the Clinton Administration and Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) engaged in a tense standoff last Thursday night over allowing homosexuals in the military, Defense Secretary Les Aspin stood on the White House lawn, blinked into television cameras and sent up what many believe was a white flag to his new military subordinates and congressional negotiating partners.
“Maybe it won’t work,” said Aspin of Clinton’s promise to open the armed forces to gay men and lesbians. “Bill Clinton will abide by his campaign pledge by doing an executive order,” and if Congress, in the end, votes down the President’s proposal, “it will be overturned, but he abided by his campaign pledge.”
Former Pentagon leaders and experts on civilian-military relations were aghast at Aspin’s public musings about being beaten by congressional and military opponents.
“What I saw was Les operating as a member of Congress--a committee chairman trying to broker a deal--rather than as secretary of defense. His demeanor toward the military on this has been a little too deferential,” said one former defense official. “For Aspin this is the worst possible issue you’d want to start a career on--to go up and get beat up the first time out of the box on an issue of great importance to the President.”
In pressing President Clinton’s fight to open the military to homosexuals, many experts and government officials said, Aspin has been bruised--some say mauled--in his first tests of partnership with an assertive Congress and of control over an obstreperous uniformed leadership.
Unless the former congressman firmly gains the upper hand, experts on military affairs warn, he is in danger of being overwhelmed by Pentagon leaders and their congressional patrons, who have grown ever more powerful and protective of their interests.
For Aspin, the stakes are high. Looming ahead are far larger battles that may again pit the Clinton Administration against the military. Among them is a promise to cut an additional $60 billion from an already pared-down military spending plan, the need to make critical decisions on the use of force in such hot spots as the former Yugoslavia and decisions on which military services will keep cherished missions in a slimmed-down force.
They said that what they characterized as Aspin’s apparent preemptive surrender on the gay issue could encourage the military to look to Congress as a court of appeals for any future Clinton Administration policies. It also could embolden the military leaders to hope that in matters of internal management, Aspin will defer to them.
Aspin has concentrated his private efforts thus far on reorganizing the offices of the Pentagon that deal with broad national security policy, and staffing them with his own team of high-level foreign and defense policy analysts. His intent is to put together a team that can reshape U.S. forces for a post-Cold War world.
But his focus on the Pentagon’s policy functions, rather than on more immediate management issues like the Pentagon’s budget, said one analyst, is like fiddling while Rome burns. “If you look at where Aspin is spending his time--outside of the gay issue--you would think that he had been named secretary of state,” said Barry Posen, a defense analyst and organizational expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “There’s been way more attention paid to staffing and creating new positions on national security policy-type issues than to internal management stuff.”
Posen warned that if Aspin doesn’t quickly grab the reins of internal management at the Pentagon, building up offices that have traditionally been the defense secretary’s “striking arms” in conflicts with the military, the armed services will get the message that they’ll be free to run most of their own affairs.
“If they see Aspin being eaten up by the gay issue--and when he’s not putting out that fire, he’s talking big-think with a little circle of strategists--they can conclude, ‘he may cut our budgets, but we’re going to control how the money’s spent,’ ” said Posen.
But Aspin’s aides, and many of his admirers, said that it is too early to count Aspin out as a significant force for change in the Pentagon.
“Aspin is reasserting centralized control at the Defense Department, getting a grip on the new era and the way things will work at the Pentagon,” said an Aspin aide. “He has set about designing the Office of the Secretary of Defense so he can assert a primary role in the making of defense policy.” Reminding the military services who is boss has been an early preoccupation of defense secretaries since James V. Forrestal, the nation’s first defense secretary in 1947.
“You always have a testing of wills and a testing of limits by the military, whose leaders need to test at the beginning,” said former Defense Secretary Harold Brown, who tangled with assertive military leaders over everything from then-President Jimmy Carter’s decision to cancel the B-1 bomber program to a proposal to withdraw some U.S. troops from Korea.
Brown and several other former defense secretaries interviewed said that the message of civilian control is best delivered in closed-door sessions, where the objections of service leaders can be fully aired and, where necessary, quietly but decisively overruled.
But occasionally, a public chastening is in order. After a week on the job in 1989, then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney sent an unambiguous message that he was in charge when, in his first press conference, he dressed down then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Larry D. Welch for attempting to broker a political compromise on Capitol Hill over two nuclear missile programs that the Air Force wanted to build. Cheney denounced his behavior as “free-lancing.”
Some believe that Aspin, too, must step up to the plate and make a similar move, even if Clinton himself may not because of his own political vulnerability over the issue of avoiding the draft during the Vietnam War. While some experts said a public reprimand of some or all of the Joint Chiefs is about as much as Aspin has cause to do, others said that only more decisive action will send the message.
“These (military leaders) are skirting on the edge of insubordination and they have to have some discipline,” said one senior Democratic aide who once served at the Pentagon. “They’ve got to know who the hell is in charge. He should fire half the Joint Chiefs of Staff right now.” The Joint Chiefs, like all military officers, serve at the pleasure of the President.
Such a move would be likely to cause temporary problems for the President and his defense secretary. “But the alternative is equally bleak,” said the Democratic aide. “They’re just going to be trampled all over by these guys if they don’t act decisively. If the chiefs think they can roll over you on the gay ban--an issue on which the President has made a firm campaign promise and about which he feels strongly--they can knock him dead on cutting $60 billion over five years . . . .”
However, like all past defense secretaries interviewed, former Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld argued that there’s been no insubordination to warrant a firing. The thing to do, he said, is to go back into “the tank"--the secure conference room in which meetings of military leaders take place--and “lead through persuasion.” In the end, if the chiefs are given the order--and if they don’t resign, “they will do precisely what they’re told,” Rumsfeld predicted.
But Rumsfeld warned that the stakes of regaining the lead on the gay issue are high.
“If you get into a pattern of being a patsy and going up (to Capitol Hill) to get stuff and losing, then it’s not terribly helpful. Then they know there’s nothing to lose by resisting.” Within the Pentagon, Rumsfeld conceded that establishing that kind of record on Capitol Hill “runs the risk” of communicating to the military’s leaders that no decision is ever final.
Their efforts to win appeals on Congress may not be insubordination, Rumsfeld said. But it could be a bureaucratic form of guerrilla warfare that can wear down a secretary for the fights ahead.
One of Aspin’s most ardent defenders, former Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird, maintained that Aspin’s strategy in managing the controversy over the issue of gays in the military has been just right. It will, he added, preserve Aspin’s political capital for bigger fights that are both more important--and more easily winnable.
Faced with a battle of these proportions, said Laird, “you try to cut your losses as fast as you can.” That could mean trying to push through a change in the military’s policy and preparing to lose, or backing off quickly and hoping to win later, which is what Aspin appeared to have done.
“Les is doing absolutely the best job possible,” said Laird.
In the end, added former Defense Secretary Brown, the forces aligned for change in the U.S. military will themselves give Aspin the upper hand in the Pentagon, even if he suffers a loss or only a partial victory on the issue of gays in the military. Ultimately, he said, the military leaders must fall in line behind Aspin because they are dependent on him to support them in future battles in which an appeal to Congress may not be as effective, such as budget cuts.
“The military’s leaders need to show cooperation with the civilian leadership in order to keep the budget from falling even faster and further” than already planned, said Brown. “To get completely crosswise on the President and the secretary of defense on a secondary issue is to risk a complete loss of support on budgets. Everybody needs everyone else on this.”