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Defense Post Takes Shape as Near-Impossible Assignment

BEFORE the Bobby Ray Inman resignation is forgotten, it seems germane to examine how his reasons for leaving may relate to the path that lies ahead for William Perry at the Defense Department.

One hears all of Admiral Inman's explanations for his surprise exit and nothing makes sense. It seems he was simply looking for a way to get out of a commitment he didn't want to make in the first place.

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Why couldn't a man who had made quite a reputation for himself as a superb public servant have left more gracefully? To resign so quickly after accepting his Defense appointment would have been awkward at best. But why lash out at Sen. Bob Dole and some columnists; and why complain that he was suffering from a revival of McCarthyism?

Before the day of his withdrawal was over, Inman was backing away from some of these charges and apologized to columnist Bill Safire. Thus, a man who owed it to himself and his family to have departed the Washington scene with dignity did little more than diminish himself in the eyes of the public - including many among those who were his admirers.

There's no point in piling on Inman. I hope he now will find his peace and happiness in private life. But he did badly embarrass a president who has been bedeviled from the beginning of his administration with difficulties in making key appointments stick.

The overwhelming consensus among pundits who assess the Washington scene is that the president was fortunate that Inman threw in his hand even before the game began. They conclude that the very oversensitivity to criticism that apparently triggered Inman's decision to leave would have made him an unsatisfactory secretary of defense.

Doubtless true. But President Clinton, fairly or not, gets tarred in Inman's coming and going; he is criticized for making a bad choice. Some of this criticism Mr. Clinton deserves. He knew about Inman's Social Security problem when he made the appointment.

But Senate confirmation for Inman had seemed certain. So when he dropped out, he raised suspicions.

Was there something that Inman thought would be brought up in the Senate hearings that had not been disclosed before - something that might discredit him and prevent confirmation?

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This question is being widely circulated in Washington - again perhaps unfairly to Inman. But his comments on leaving have stirred up instead of quieted such speculation.

More probably, Inman's apprehensions about the road ahead were grounded on the almost impossible demands being laid on that defense assignment. The New York Times points to some of these when it says a defense secretary should ``make the Pentagon uncomfortable with discrimination, with wasteful weapons whose purpose disappeared with the Soviet Union, and with procurement practices that fail to make the best use of scarce resources.''

So how does a defense secretary make deep cuts in military spending and support the lifting of bars to women and gays in the military while winning the backing and respect of the hard-liners who make up the major portion of the military brass?

In other words, how does a defense secretary serve both the demands and vision of the nation's liberals and conservatives at the same time?

I think Inman was uncomfortable with that prospect - and stepped aside. Now it is up to Mr. Perry.

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