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Aspin Departure Signals a Shift In White House Defense Priorities

Grasp of budget is seen as less critical than problem-solving skills

IN picking Ret. Adm. Bobby Ray Inman as his new Pentagon chief, President Clinton is tacitly admitting that his view of what it takes to run United States national security has changed since taking office.

At the time of his appointment, Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin seemed perfect: a congressional military expert steeped in the intricacies of the military budget. Who better to preside over the inevitable downsizing of US armed forces?

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But over the past months, the hottest security issues ending up on the Pentagon chief's desk seemed to have little to do with the balance of readiness versus procurement funding. They were decisions about the role of military force and violence in the world: Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti.

These are the kind of hard-edged problems that Admiral Inman has spent much of his life studying, first in the US Navy, and later as head of the National Security Agency under President Carter and deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency in the Reagan years. (As of this writing, Inman's appointment had not yet been officially announced.)

In the end, Mr. Aspin seemed the wrong man for the job. Qualities that had made him an effective chairman of the House Armed Services Committee backfired during his administration of the nation's largest economic entity.

His tendency to think out loud, even on TV news shows, sometimes landed him in trouble. His professorial approach to meetings resulted in discussions that often failed to reach decisions.

For a former member of Congress, his political antennae were occasionally insensitive. He only reimbursed the government $390 of the $3,100 it cost to fix the roof of his Georgetown home, so that secret communications equipment would not be ruined by leaks. Taxpayers footed the bill for security guards to accompany him on a vacation in Venice.

More serious missteps included his denial of a military request for tanks in Somalia - weeks before 18 US troops died in an ambush. At the time of his resignation, he was sparring with White House budget officials over additional billions for the Pentagon's long-term spending plans.

Much of official Washington believes Aspin was pushed out. The decision came suddenly - he was scheduled to appear at a Monitor breakfast with reporters yesterday. The appearance was canceled only hours before his resignation announcement.

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