White House and US Military Are Not in Step - So Far

IN one respect the Defense Department is welcoming new bosses from the Clinton administration with open arms. As officials are named to posts and filter into Pentagon offices they are being met with military efficiency: Support staffs snap to life; aides appear bearing files and agendas; lieutenant colonels stream in for introductions.

For people used to the Dickensian chaos of, say, Congress, all that order and attention can come as quite a shock.

"It's like your birthday, every day," says one defense official.

But it is no secret that on another level the relationship between the armed forces and the Clinton White House has not begun well. Clinton officials grumble that the Joint Chiefs of Staff do not seem to understand who won the election. For their part, some military officers think President Clinton's perception of the armed services is frozen in 1972.

Wherever fault lies, continued poor rapport between the Oval Office and the Joint Chiefs would not be good news for the nation, as crises flare all around the world. As Mr. Clinton takes the case for his economic plan to the public, one serving officer who voted for him wondered recently why the armed services seem to be the only segment of United States society the new chief executive is not wooing.

Clinton hasn't yet crossed the Potomac to visit the Pentagon itself for even a symbolic visit, for instance. The contrast with George Bush, for whom military reviews at times seemed welcome respites from pesky domestic problems, could not be more pronounced.

Defense Secretary Les Aspin thus faces a tough role as a middleman. The explosive issue of allowing gays in the armed services has died down for the moment, as officials draft an executive order due six months hence. But Mr. Aspin still faces issues that must be handled with equal delicacy - the budget and the US role in Bosnia.

Military spending. The Clinton administration has already asked the armed services to take a quick $10.8 billion out of their fiscal 1994 spending plans, as a down payment on a promised $60 billion in cuts over five years.

But the final cut for 1994 will not be that big. Aspin told a defense industry group last week that some additions to the budget will be made. The experimental tilt-rotor V-22 aircraft, for instance, is likely to make it into spending plans.

Still, the advent of the Clinton administration means Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Colin Powell will have to abandon his plan to trim weapons procurement and maintenance budgets, which only gets you so far. Large reductions must be made by getting rid of divisions and fighter wings.

While General Powell's base-force plans called for 1.6 million active troops, Aspin has already set a 1.4 million personnel ceiling. Yet Gordon Adams, the new Office of Management and Budget program associate director in charge of military spending, has been associated with calls for a 1.2 million force by 1997, and when he was chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Aspin looked at even smaller force options.

Last week, the Pentagon issued a report on military roles and missions that took some small steps toward eliminating duplication in the services - by recommending that some maintenance depots be closed, for instance. But it shied away from radical recommendations, and Powell sounded resigned to a further round of evaluations.

"Because I have submitted this report ... doesn't mean that we stopped the clock on looking for duplication," he said.

Bosnia. Top military officers have long resisted US involvement in the Balkans crisis. They say they feel that the only action that would make sense from a military point of view - deployment of tens of thousands of US troops with heavy weapons - is something the US public would not support.

Now Clinton has formulated a policy, which seems capable of pulling the US military into the ground-based role. US peacekeeping troops would not be deployed to Bosnia until after a peace plan is signed by all parties involved. But few analysts think such a plan would end all fighting.

The last thing the US needs now is a return to the mutual suspicion and acrimony that marked military-civilian relations during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations of the 1960s, writes retired Col. Harry Summers, an Army War College fellow, in a recent commentary.

Kennedy blamed the Joint Chiefs for not preventing the Bay of Pigs fiasco, according to Summers. He appointed a crony as Joint Chief chairman, according to Summers, who then hid Viet-nam military problems from him.

Johnson also distrusted the Chiefs. Cut out of decisionmaking on the war, they never told the president that the US military strategy would probably fail, concluded Gen. Bruce Palmer in his book on Vietnam, "The 25-Year War."

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