Roots of Failure

Feb. 1, 1994

Even those of us who were frequently critical of Secretary of Defense Les Aspin felt a little sad about it December 15 when his dismissal was announced. It was a sorry end to a long and often distinguished public career.

Mr. Aspin’s fall has been attributed, variously, to his professorial demeanor, failure to establish good working relationships, health, fatigue, lack of administrative ability, indecisiveness, undercutting the White House staff on the homosexual issue, and failure to clamp down on the armed forces. Even his rumpled appearance was mentioned.

Many saw his most famous mistake–the denial of armor to US forces in Somalia, leading to the deaths of eighteen soldiers in October–as a random anomaly.

The fact is, Mr. Aspin brought with him the seeds of his own undoing when he came to the Pentagon. His real problems had nothing to do with the way he wore his suits or ran his staff meetings. The problem was policies that would not work.

The “Options” papers. In February 1992, when Mr. Aspin was chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, he published a series of “Options” papers describing alternatives to the Bush Administration’s defense program.

These papers became the basis for Bill Clinton’s position on defense in the campaign. Candidate Clinton didn’t know much about defense, but the Aspin papers said what he wanted to hear–that forces and budgets could be cut deeply without harm. The Aspin options subsequently became the basis for the defense program the new Clinton Administration would try to implement.

“Limited Objectives” doctrine. In the fall of 1992, Rep. Aspin attacked the Pentagon’s “all or nothing” standard for committing troops to battle. He said the public would be reluctant to pay for armed forces that were “not very useful” because of a fastidious policy that allowed their employment “only very, very rarely.” Mr. Aspin brought the “limited objectives/minimal force” mindset with him to office. It fit well with the Administration’s tendencies toward social engineering abroad. Following the “Limited Objectives” concept, the relief mission to Somalia slid slickly from humanitarian relief into armed peacekeeping.

It was consistent with the new thinking when Secretary Aspin refused armored support for troops committed casually to trying to capture a Somali warlord. Eighteen Army Rangers died on October 3. On December 2, US troops were acting as bodyguards for that same warlord (no longer a “thug” in shifting Administration parlance) and flying him to a meeting on an Army aircraft.

The thin-air budget. On March 27, the Defense Department announced a new five-year budget, with numbers that were not only astonishingly low but also arbitrarily set. Program specifics were to be determined later. What made the Administration think this preposterous approach might work? The decision-makers were going on the basis of the Aspin “Options” packages, where the analysis and arithmetic had supposedly been done. The dollar estimates, concepts, and rhetoric all bore a strong family resemblance to the 1992 Aspin papers.

Strategic and financial floundering. Throughout the summer and into the fall, Mr. Aspin and the armed forces struggled to fabricate a defense program that would make the budget numbers work. One product of this effort was the shaky “Win-Hold-Win” strategy that Mr. Aspin withdrew in June under fire and ridicule.

The funding gap. Mr. Aspin revealed in October what almost everybody who follows defense matters knew already: The March budget wouldn’t cover the program, not even the scaled-down program that emerged from Mr. Aspin’s fiscally driven “Bottom-Up Review.” At first, the funding gap was said to be $13 billion, then $23 billion, then $50 billion-or more. (In December, the Administration revised the funding gap estimate downward to $31 billion, then days later declared the shortfall to have been “resolved.”)

Much has been said about Mr. Aspin’s inability to smooth over the rift between the President and the military. (The assumption seems to be that the troops would have behaved like obedient robots instead of real people if Mr. Aspin had been firm and tough.)

The real problem was the basis of the rift-the homosexual issue, the blind budget cuts, the options package mentality, the careless commitment of force, and the general disinterest and disrespect from the Administration-not Aspin’s inability to smooth it over.

Mr. Aspin was not, as many have depicted him, an innocent victim, caught in the middle. He was both inspiration for and architect of the policies that ultimately consumed him. It was his misfortune that an inflexible Administration locked on to his optimistic, early promises and was unwilling to adjust thereafter.

It should be said for Mr. Aspin that, unlike some in the Administration, he genuinely liked and respected the military. Unfortunately, he was not able to deflect the White House from the relentless course that his theories had justified in the beginning.

His successor’s position is not to be envied. He inherits the same policies and goals that brought Aspin to grief, and the situation today is even more difficult than the one that Mr. Aspin waded into a year ago.