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An Enigmatic Choice

WITH avid support from both sides of the aisle in Congress, the nominee for secretary of defense, Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, appears a shoo-in for the job, even though he has had a ``nannygate'' problem of unpaid taxes for a household worker. All of Washington seems ready to forgive the indiscretion in Mr. Inman's case; he won't be heading the Justice Department, no one wants a draconian standard for Cabinet membership, and one year into the administration, the Beltway establishment wants to move the nation's business forward.

If outgoing Secretary of Defense Les Aspin was professorial, Inman is the organized insider. Plaudits for Inman - for his reputed Beltway skills and grasp of details - already reach the ozone layer. His reputation and Pentagon connections mean he will, if confirmed, step into office with more authority than Mr. Aspin did.

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Still, the choice is enigmatic. Despite his brilliance it is not clear what Inman is prepared to do for the administration.

The president needs a strong individual to prune the still relatively lush defense budget; he needs someone with a clear policy direction to shore up a weak foreign policy team. Whether Inman will deliver on either need is anybody's guess.

Inman himself is a Republican who voted for George Bush. His grudging acceptance of the Defense nomination means he already has leverage with Clinton; should the two men clash, Inman is capable of resigning on the spot.

On the surface, it appears Inman's loyalties lie with the Pentagon, not with the president.

In the recent Pentagon ``bottom up'' review there is a $50 billion shortfall based on an assessment of threat. The figure calculates an ability to conduct two wars at the same time. But the dollar figures are soft.

Moreover, the $240 billion budget includes such items as a new aircraft carrier and weapons systems not immediately critical. The carrier gives $5 billion in jobs, but seems unnecessary.

But it is in the area of policy, not weapons acquisition, that the Pentagon needs help. Aspin's recent effort to sell NATO allies the idea of limited membership in NATO for former Warsaw Pact states will probably founder with the recent election of ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky in Russia.

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No one knows what Inman believes about such issues. Plaudits aside, he has made no mark in any policy direction. On the crucial question of military direction after the cold war his views remain to be seen.

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