Wanted: a successor for sacked Aspin: Three people have refused the job of Defense Secretary as relations between the Democrats and the military worsen, writes Patrick Cockburn in Washington

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THE Secretary of Defense has authority over 3 million Americans and spends 18 cents out of every dollar in the federal budget. So why is President Bill Clinton finding it so difficult to fill the job?

First, Admiral Bobby Ray Inman withdrew his nomination at the last moment. Then Sam Nunn, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, turned down an offer to replace him. Now President Clinton's third choice, Warren Rudman, a former Republican Senator, has told the White House he is not interested.

A pity Mr Clinton fired Les Aspin as Defense Secretary in December because he is just the sort of experienced hand the White House wants to see at the Pentagon. His main problem was and is - Admiral Inman's self-destruct put his departure on hold - that the military does not like him. Although no radical, they see him as representing a post-Cold War world where military budgets are under threat.

The clash between the White House and the Pentagon will not go away just because Mr Aspin is departing. His deep unpopularity on both sides of the Potomac river is largely because he tried to mediate between the two and ended up by alienating everybody. Fear of also being caught in the middle - between a budget-cutting White House and a security establishment intent on preserving its dollars 250bn ( pounds 370bn) budget - may scare off candidates willing to replace him.

As others cry off the most likely choice is the deputy defense secretary, Willam Perry, a man popular with the chiefs at the Pentagon if only because he likes costly high- technology weapons programmes such as the Stealth bomber.

Not all this is President Clinton's fault. The US military does not really like Democrats. In the 1992 election, Bush-Quayle bumper stickers were five times more numerous in the Pentagon car park than Clinton-Gore stickers. This was the reverse of the rest of Washington. Mr Clinton was also bound to clash with a defence establishment grown accustomed under the Republicans to spending what it wanted. The US navy is still building submarines to combat the next generation of Soviet submarines which do not exist.

It was unfortunate for Mr Clinton that his relations with the armed forces in his first six months in office was dominated by the row over ending the ban on homosexuals in the military. He had a strong case. In the 1980s military investigators spent dollars 500m in a witch-hunt for homosexuals. But Mr Clinton's reform was politically unpopular. It reignited charges about his evasion of the draft in the Vietnam war and enabled the Pentagon to side step the issue of its post-Cold War spending.

But the White House added to its own problems. Mr Clinton, as Paul Greenberg, a newspaper columnist, pointed out this week, tends to meet his opponents not half way but five-sixths of the way. Dismissing Mr Aspin and appointing Admiral Inman, for 30 years a member of Washington's political and military establishment, reinforced the status quo. Not surprisingly Admiral Inman's greatest supporters were Strobe Talbott at the State Department and David Gergen at the White House, veterans of the capital's media elite.

By dumping Mr Aspin, Mr Clinton also reinforced his reputation as somebody who does not stand by his friends when they come under attack. Belief that his instinct is always to appease opposition has been strong ever since he withdrew Lani Guinier's nomination for the human rights' post at the Justice Department following Republican criticism.

At the Pentagon - as elsewhere in Washington - Mr Clinton's opponents believe they have learned the lesson that the way to deal with him is to stand up to him.

The irony of Mr Clinton's failure to find a defence secretary is that the enforced resignation of Mr Aspin was meant to show the White House moving decisively to refocus its foreign policy after a bad run in Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti. Instead, exactly a year after he took office, it is showing how Mr Clinton's obession with short-term tactical advantage undermines the chances of reform at the Pentagon or anywhere else in Washington.