Military ties

Why is the president letting conservative hawks hold his domestic agenda hostage to Pentagon spending fantasies?

What was Bill Clinton thinking when he nominated Bobby Ray Inman for secretary of defense? Let us grant that Inman hid the fact that he may be off his rocker--he'd made a career of that. But he made no bones about who he was or what he believed when he wasn't hearing voices. He'd supported Bush, not Clinton. He was unenthusiastic about gays serving in the military and not much interested in cutting the defense budget. He wasn't sure that Clinton was qualified to be his commander in chief.

Fortunately for Clinton, the voices told Inman to get out before he did any permanent damage to the nation or its president. Saved from one idiotic attempted appointment, however, Clinton immediately made an even stupider one: Sam Nunn.

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Desperate to reassure all those people praying for his failure, Clinton offered the job to a man who has spent the past 14 months trying to humiliate the president and frustrate his purposes. Just what national-security emergency do we face that Clinton must bow down before his political enemies and grant them the opportunity to destroy his presidency? Yes, Nunn stayed away, as did choice number three, Warren Rudman. But Clinton's latest selection, William Perry, is hardly an improvement. How did the president get himself into this mess?

Last December, Clinton apparently decided that he'd had enough of watching foreign policy blow up in his face. Part of the problem had been Clinton's tendency to overpromise. Within a few months of taking office, the president had led the American people to believe that his administration could settle the war in Bosnia; restore democracy to Haiti; negotiate peace for Somalia; end the nuclear threat from North Korea; and guide Russia to a path of peace and prosperity. None of the first four goals are possible without the use of U.S. combat troops, however, and the last one is probably not achievable at all.

Far more serious, however, was the fact that neither the president nor his advisers were capable of challenging the prevailing ethos of the permanent Washington establishment, which remains enthralled with global U.S. intervention and the trillions of dollars' worth of weaponry it entails. Instead of outlining an alternative more in-line with his promise to revitalize the nation's productive capabilities, Clinton opted to treat the military and its ancillary operations in industry, academia, and the media as another constituency to be appeased. That the cost of such appeasement will almost certainly be the funds needed to rebuild the economy seems not to have occurred to the president.

More likely than not, Clinton saw this most recent political capitulation as necessary if he were to get foreign policy the hell out of his way. Neither Secretary of State Warren Christopher nor Secretary of Defense Les Aspin had been able to do this, in part because neither could articulate an understandable national security policy. One of them had to go.

Christopher recognized this and went to work, implicitly trading large portions of his diplomatic portfolio to Vice President Al Gore and new Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott in exchange for their support in helping him keep his job. With Clinton concentrating on health care, Christopher unable to articulate himself out of a paper bag, and the new secretary of defense focusing on repairing White House-military relations, Gore and Talbott now hold the balance of U.S. medium- and long-term strategic planning. Both men are activist-interventionists, though Gore (who has been tutored extensively by New Republic neocon Marty Peretz) is more inclined to recommend force than is Talbott, the former Time pundit.

The coup that left Aspin temporarily unemployed was secretly overseen by Chief of Staff Mack McLarty but catalyzed by Gore and Talbott, with heavy last-minute cheerleading by spinmeister David Gergen. (It was also Gergen who briefed Inman before both of his masterfully disastrous press conferences.) Clinton, in a panic over the state of his foreign policy, signed on just hours before walking his friend to the guillotine.

(Strangely enough, it was the dishonorable and unfeeling manner with which Clinton did the deed to Aspin that seemed to excite Washington the most. The Washington Post applauded the president for behaving in a fashion it termed "decisive, authoritative, and swift." "The president had shown that he had finally learned how to fire--and hire--someone without making a mess of it," cooed Newsweek.)

But before we wax nostalgic, we need to recognize Aspin's tenure for what it was: an unqualified disaster. The problem was not merely Aspin's "temperament," as the pundits uniformly opined, but that for all his brains he was a complete wimp when it came to imposing any sort of order on the military.

Aspin's long-awaited "Bottom-Up Review" of Pentagon spending was a complete bust. It contained no hint of a coherent post-Cold War organizing principle, and caved in to virtually every demand the armed services could invent, including hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of weapons systems designed to meet Soviet counterparts that will now never be built. The Pentagon will receive over $1.2 trillion in military spending for the next five years, or about as much as the rest of the world combined.

Because Aspin could not impose even the most rudimentary form of discipline on Pentagon spending, President Clinton is unable to fund any of the domestic investments needed to rebuild the economy's long-term prospects. Under Clinton, fewer real dollars are being spent on schooling, worker retraining, and infrastructure than were spent under George Bush.

On domestic issues, Clinton is a politician of significant vision who often lacks the courage to impose that vision on a recalcitrant opposition. In foreign policy, however, Clinton is operating without a map. He's never had much more than feelings--dovish in the '70s, hawkish in the '80s--and seems to treat foreign policy issues as an adjunct of domestic party politics.

In the early days of his administration, it seemed that the best foreign policy team for Clinton would be one that kept foreign affairs out of the news as much as possible. Hence, the attempted adoption of what The Economist termed "the Bush foreign policy on automatic pilot."

Clinton could have made an effort to shift U.S. foreign policy away from the global-cop paradigm that held sway when he took office. A significant minority of the old guard seemed ready to rethink the obsolete verities of the past. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., called for the abolition of the CIA. Former Reagan Pentagon official Larry Korb outlined a reduction in forces that could have freed up hundreds of billions of dollars over the next five years. William Hyland, a national security official under Gerald Ford and former editor of the establishment flagship Foreign Affairs, offered Clinton ideological cover by calling for a downgrading of national security policy and a focus on internal improvement. And Foreign Policy editor Charles William Maynes came up with a global strategy based on regional balances of power--sanctioned by the United Nations but resting on the enforcement powers of the United States, Europe, Russia, and Japan--to replace our costly and largely futile attempts at global copsmanship.

From the rubble of Clinton's failure to seize these opportunities, however, a new insider coalition has arisen. Composed of traditional conservatives who prefer military spending to all other kinds, it is augmented by Democrats who see the military as a means to spread the gospel of democracy the world over. Together with the old-line post-Cold Warriors to whom Clinton has ceded the Pentagon, these liberal interventionists hold the power to undermine the political rationale for Clinton's presidency by refusing to balance their desire to intervene against the costs to the president's domestic agenda that such interventions will require.

Without a secretary of defense who will enforce significant reductions in the armed forces, and a secretary of state able to articulate a scaled-down vision of U.S. strategic interests, Clinton will never find the money to fund his domestic priorities. With this hope lost, his political fortunes are at the mercy of a capricious and backward-looking punditocracy. (That Inman aimed so deliberately at the grand pooh-bah of pundit power, Swami Safire, only to miss his fat target by a country mile, is among the most frustrating aspects of this whole sorry affair.)

The cost of pundit approval will be high. Last year the price was passing NAFTA, which may have caused a permanent rift between the president and the constituency that elected him. Next comes a showdown with North Korea--what several pundits, including Karen Elliot House and Charles Eucher, have already called Clinton's "Cuban missile crisis." Pundit Lally Weymouth has suggested that Korea's nuclear ambitions may require a second Korean War to redress. And Charles Krauthammer is calling the administration's tentative solution an "unconditional surrender," though in fact, this phrase may better apply to the terms that the right is now demanding of Clinton.