PRESIDENT Clinton's sensitivity to his evasion of military service during the war in Vietnam continues to cause long-term problems for this country in the critical area of civil-military relations. These problems first surfaced in the campaign and continue to dog him and the nation.
To compensate for the candidate's lack of a military background, which some felt was a result of draft dodging, the Clinton campaign sought and received the endorsement of some 20 retired, high-ranking military officers - including Adm. William Crowe, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Lt. Gen. Calvin Waller, the deputy commander of the allied forces in the Persian Gulf war.
When I questioned a Clinton campaign worker (who now has a relatively high post in the Pentagon) about this unprecedented involvement of the military in politics, he agreed that it established a troubling precedent, but said the Democrats were tired of losing presidential campaigns. Compounding the problem, several of Mr. Clinton's military supporters were rewarded with presidential appointments for their efforts in legitimizing him. Admiral Crowe has been nominated to the prestigious post of Ambassador to the Court of St. James, a post that normally goes to a large campaign contributor.
Since taking office, Clinton has shown an unwillingness to take on the military on many difficult issues. Confronted with military opposition on such subjects as homosexuality, budgets, and intervention in Bosnia, the president has backed down from his own positions.
When Secretary of Defense Les Aspin couldn't keep him from having problems with the military, the president turned to a retired career officer to shield him from and give him credibility with the Pentagon.
WHILE Adm. Bobby Inman may help Clinton with his problem, his appointment could erode the sacred constitutional principle of civilian control of the military. True, Admiral Inman has been retired for a decade, which technically makes him a civilian; but he spent the previous three decades as a naval officer, and his forays into the civilian business world have been less than successful. Does he not still think and act as a military person? Presidents themselves are far too busy to spend their time bringing a civilian perspective to the Pentagon. That is the job of the secretary of defense. True, Inman knows the issues; but for military expertise, we already have a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Few democracies have career military officers serving as defense ministers. Neither England nor any of its former colonies has. Most authoritarian countries, like China and Russia, do. Only once, during the first year of the Korean War, did this country allow a retired general to serve as secretary of defense. And during his year in office, Gen. George Marshall refused to interfere with his former colleague, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, when General MacArthur violated the letter and spirit of Truman's instructions by charging headlong toward the Yalu River, thereby provoking Chinese intervention and causing large casualties among the poorly prepared forces.
Rewarding Crowe and appointing Inman (Crowe, by the way, was a member of the group that suggested Inman) is not likely to cause short-term problems, but the precedents for the nation could be ominous. Will future candidates actively seek the endorsement of military people? And will the military who have been courted seek to be rewarded with high office? Will the Pentagon brass refuse to work for a secretary of defense who is not a military man, if the president himself is not a veteran?
Clinton needs to realize that no one is technically qualified to be commander-in-chief. It comes with election to the presidency, and even if the military does not like him, it will respect him if he takes charge. He does not need a shield from the Pentagon, nor did he need the military to legitimize his candidacy. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.