WASHINGTON — SECRETARY of Defense William Perry appears to define the phrase ``mild-mannered.'' Unassuming, nontelegenic, and expert on eye-glazing topics such as acquisition reform, Mr. Perry was supposed to be a safe choice to lead the Pentagon after the departure of the mercurial Les Aspin.
So far Perry is winning high marks for his ability to make the Defense Department's bureaucratic trains run on time. But in recent weeks he has startled the White House and Washington at large with a penchant for blunt talk about foreign-policy problems.
In a television interview last week, Perry said the US would not use air power to protect the Bosnian Muslim city of Gorazde against Serbian assault. This position was quickly repudiated by national security adviser Anthony Lake, who in a speech said all options to help Goradze remained open. Once again the Clinton administration appeared to be delivering a mixed message about international affairs. Such dissonance has bedeviled the White House since Bill Clinton took office; most recently, officials have talked confusingly about whether human rights supersede business interests in United States policy on China.
``This [confusion] is a strategic problem of considerable proportions for the Clinton foreign-policy team,'' says Dan Nelson, professor of international affairs at Old Dominion University.
Perry's defenders say the new Pentagon chief is not particularly blunt. Rather, they imply, the difficulty may be that other foreign-policy officials are determinedly obscure. Secretary of State Warren Christopher is not known to ooze charisma. Security adviser Lake is professorial and does not often make high-profile public appearances.
US policy on Bosnia was confusing before Perry rose to the top spot at the Pentagon, after all. The administration has moved from toughness to reticence and back to urging force during Clinton's first year.
US military officials have long been skeptical of the utility of air power in Bosnia. While they will use airstrikes to protect UN peacekeepers, and NATO bombing threats have forced an end to Serb shelling of Sarajevo, many in the Pentagon think the infantry fighting around Gorazde would be impossible to halt from the air. Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made statements similar to Perry's last week.
``Perry is simply reflecting the consensus of his military advisers,'' says Loren Thompson, deputy director of national-security studies at Georgetown University in Washington.
But critics contend that Perry should not have said what he did out loud. They ask: Why give Serbs the idea they could attack Gorazde with impunity?
``Perry made a mistake,'' claims Professor Nelson. ``He gave away the farm.''
Bosnia is not the only geopolitical topic on which Perry has spoken out. He has sounded tougher toward North Korea than other officials, warning that in resisting international inspection of its nuclear facilities Pyongyang risks ``substantial pressures'' such as economic sanctions. After a trip through Russia and other former republics of the Soviet Union, he made a point of giving a speech and on-the-record press briefing. He even coined his own phrase - ``pragmatic partnership'' - to define US-Russian relations.
Publicly, Pentagon officials deny that Perry went too far with his statements on Bosnia. Defense spokeswoman Kathleen deLaski said ``there's no daylight'' between the Pentagon and the State Department over the possible use of force in Bosnia.
Any such ``daylight'' would not be unusual, though. Since Vietnam, the Pentagon's watchword has usually been to threaten force reluctantly - but if you move, move with overwhelming force. The Gulf War was a textbook example of this approach; the US peacekeeping experience in Somalia was not.
The State Department, by contrast, often wants to use gradations of threats as a diplomatic scalpel, rather than a blunt instrument.
``One of the things that jumps to center stage when you become a high Pentagon official is the issue about when force should be committed,'' said Deputy Secretary of Defense John Deutch in a recent interview. ``It sharpens one's mind extraordinarily.''