Clinton runs out of patience with Aspin

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'THERE were whoops of joy here when we heard Aspin had resigned,' said a Pentagon official yesterday. 'He won't be missed. By his own admission he failed and he was effectively sacked.'

The departure of Les Aspin as Secretary of Defense - and the nomination of Admiral Bobby Ray Inman by President Bill Clinton as his replacement - came because he tried to mediate between the White House and the Pentagon and ended up alienating both.

There were signs of this during his first days in office in January. The armed services were never going to like Mr Clinton's decision to end the ban on gays in the military. But Mr Aspin fuelled opposition by saying on television that Congress and the military leadership could 'derail this thing'.

Mr Clinton clearly did not warm to his own Defense Secretary publicly signalling the vulnerability of the White House on this issue. Nor was this the only instance of Mr Aspin undercutting offical policy. In October he expressed misgivings about the dispatch of the USS Harlan County to Haiti, advertising to the Haitian military leadership that US resolve was weak.

In the wake of Mr Aspin's resignation yesterday his friends were saying that his habit of speculating in public was all part of an overly intellectual approach to running the Pentagon. Others, less charitable, say his liking to be on both sides on many questions was already evident after he became chairman of the House Armed Services Committee in 1985.

On Somalia, Mr Aspin was blamed for rejecting a request by commanders on the ground for extra armoured vehicles two weeks before 18 US soldiers were killed by militiamen. The debacle of American policy in Somalia was more the responsibility of the White House than the Pentagon, but television pictures of wrecked helicopters damaged the reputation for efficiency which the US armed forces had achieved in the Gulf war.

It was unfortunate for Mr Aspin that he replaced Dick Cheney, the Republican Secretary of Defense, whose reputation was boosted by victory over Saddam Hussein. He was also overshadowed during his first months in office by General Colin Powell, the immensely popular chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. In recent weeks Mr Cheney had broken with tradition by publicly criticising his successor.

A Democratic administration was always going to have trouble with the armed forces. In the Pentagon car park during the presidential election last year Bush-Quayle bumper stickers outnumbered Clinton- Gore stickers by five or six to one.

The defence budget - slimming the military to 1.4 million men - is being cut against resistance from senior generals. The last row Mr Aspin was involved in was over a Pentagon demand for an extra dollars 50bn ( pounds 33bn) over five years to carry out its defence plans.

Admiral Inman, 62, is a former deputy director of the CIA, an ex-director of the National Security Agency and former head of naval intelligence.

He moved swiftly to assert his political independence yesterday, saying that he had neither sought nor wanted the job, and accepted it out of duty. He went out of his way to make clear that he had voted for George Bush in last year's presidential election.

'He is an agile bureaucratic operator and very good at stroking Congress. When he was at the CIA he would ring them back personally to answer questions,' said a defence specialist yesterday.

Could Mr Aspin's departure be the precursor of other resignations from Mr Clinton's security and foreign policy team? The Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, and National Security Advisor, Tony Lake, are vulnerable after a lacklustre first year in office. But more sackings might give the impression of an administration in disarray just when it is doing well in the polls.

Mr Aspin was described yesterday as 'crushed' by his departure, according to one of his aides. At the age of 55 he has little chance of getting back into Congress, where he served 11 terms.

A four-star general was quoted as saying that, looking at Mr Aspin, Mr Clinton had said to himself: 'I'm adding up the pluses and the minuses and I don't see many pluses.'

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