Clinton fails to hide his problem with the Pentagon: President's press conference performance does not appease his foes in the forces

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The Independent Online
The spectacle of a US President, in the formal splendour of the East Room, denying he 'has a problem being Commander-in- Chief' is, to put it mildly, unusual. That Bill Clinton was obliged to so yesterday is a measure of his strained relations with the Pentagon - above all over his determination to lift the ban on homosexuals in the armed forces.

As is his wont, Mr Clinton brushed the matter off with poise and equanimity during his first set-piece press conference at the White House. He was comfortable in the job of Commander-in-Chief, but his Defense Secretary, Les Aspin, had been unwell and 'a lot of service officers disagreed with the position on gays in the military before I ever took office'.

But, however smooth the answer, the problem remains. The controversy over homosexual servicemen, a planned dollars 120bn ( pounds 80bn) of defence budget cuts over the next five years, and Mr Clinton's celebrated avoidance of the Vietnam draft have all combined to create an unprecedentedly tricky relationship between a new President and the huge military establishment.

Next Monday a deeply divided Senate is to begin hearings on the ban which Mr Clinton has promised he will end. Opposition to the move from Sam Nunn, chairman of the influential Senate Armed Services Committee, is guarantee enough of a rough ride. But hostility throughout the ranks of the military is, if anything, greater.

Ten days ago Mr Clinton was mocked behind his back by crewmen and pilots when he visited the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, shortly before it left for the dangerous waters off the former Yugoslav coast. 'There are a lot of people who don't approve of the President personally, and you can't hide that,' the Washington Post then quoted a Navy lieutenant as saying - one of the politer comments recorded by the paper.

Congressional staffers and military officials alike admit that, five days before the Senate starts work, the Defense Department is way behind in preparing for the hearings. But evidence is mounting that the military is now quietly seeking to sabotage Mr Clinton's entire plan. A draft of the amended gays policy is due by 15 June, the President said yesterday. In fact, work has not even begun. According to reports here, senior military planners are campaigning against the policy.

The Navy, for instance, is circulating a statement by the commanding officer of Petty Officer Keith Meinhold, an avowed homosexual first discharged last year and then reinstated by a Federal Court. The statement claims Mr Meinhold's presence had upset his fellow servicemen and damaged morale in his unit.

At his press conference, Mr Clinton hinted he would offer a compromise, whereby the duty assignments of homosexuals would be limited to certain areas. But this is unlikely to satisfy his foes. A new Army memorandum, said the New York Times yesterday, warns that if the ban on gays were lifted, recruitment might drop off to the point where the draft became necessary again.

(Photograph omitted)