Leslie Aspin

William J. Clinton Administration

January 21, 1993 – February 3, 1994

President-elect Bill Clinton's choice for secretary of defense, Leslie (Les) Aspin, had represented Wisconsin's First Congressional District in the House of Representatives since 1971. Aspin was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on 21 July 1938 and attended public schools there. His academic credentials included a B.A. from Yale University (1960), an M.A. from Oxford University (1962), where (like the new president) he was a Rhodes Scholar, and a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1965). As an officer in the U.S. Army from 1966 to 1968, he served as a systems analyst in the Pentagon under Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. Before his election as a Democrat to Congress in 1970, Aspin had been active in Wisconsin politics and had taught economics at Marquette University.

Aspin began his career in Congress as an outsider but soon developed a special interest and expertise in defense matters. Before and during his tenure in the House, he had opposed the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. In his early years in Congress he often issued press releases critical of shortcomings he detected in the armed forces. By 1985, when he became chairman of the House Committee on Armed Services, he was recognized as a leading defense authority. His chairmanship caused controversy among some House Democrats, particularly because he supported the Reagan administration's policies on the MX missile and aid to the Nicaraguan Contras. Although temporarily removed from his committee chair by his Democratic colleagues in 1987, Aspin weathered the crisis and resumed the post. He again broke with many Democrats in January 1991 when he issued a paper supporting the Bush administration's intention to use military force to drive the Iraqis from Kuwait. The accuracy of his prediction that the United States could win a quick military victory with light casualties added to his reputation as a military expert.

Aspin served as an adviser to Clinton on defense matters during the 1992 presidential campaign. Given Clinton's lack of military experience and avoidance of service during the Vietnam War, appointment of a prominent and respected defense expert to head the Pentagon seemed desirable. Because of his leadership position in the House, Aspin's views on defense issues were well known. He was skeptical about the Strategic Defense Initiative, and favored a smaller Navy, a cut in U.S. troops in Europe, and further reduction of military personnel strength. These positions, along with the assumption that Aspin would work toward a substantial cut in the Defense budget, worried the military. Defense industry leaders applauded Aspin's selection because he favored maintaining a viable defense industrial base. Although questioned extensively, Aspin won easy confirmation in the Senate.

Shortly after he took office, Aspin discussed dangers that had emerged with the end of the Cold War: the uncertainty that reform could succeed in the former Soviet Union; the enhanced possibility that terrorists or terrorist states could acquire nuclear weapons; the likely proliferation of regional conflicts; and the failure to take adequate account of the impact of the state of the domestic economy on U.S. national security interests. Given these conditions and the end of the Cold War, it seemed clear that the Pentagon was entering a period of potentially profound change. Aspin looked like a sound choice to manage this change.

As it turned out, Aspin faced difficulties from the beginning. A serious heart ailment put him in the hospital for several days in February 1993, after barely a month in office. A month later he was back in the hospital for implantation of a heart pacemaker. Even so, he had to deal immediately with the highly charged question of homosexuals in the military, a controversy left over from Cheney's tenure. That had become an issue in the 1992 campaign, when Clinton had promised to end discrimination against homosexuals. During his confirmation hearings Aspin indicated that he would take action quickly, and on entering office he presented a plan to the president to discuss the matter with Congress and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and presented a timetable leading to an order dealing with the matter. This plan provoked widespread protest from all sides on the issue.

The fallout from the controversy wounded both Clinton and Aspin politically and dragged on until December 1993, when, after many months of equivocation, confusion, and more controversy, Aspin released new regulations on homosexual conduct in the armed forces: Applicants for the services would not be asked about their sexual orientation, and homosexual orientation would not disqualify anyone from service "unless manifested by homosexual conduct"; military personnel would be judged on suitability for service, not sexual orientation; separation from the service would be based on homosexual acts, same sex marriage, or statements by an individual that he or she was bisexual or homosexual, with the person accorded the opportunity to rebut the presumption of homosexual acts; DoD criminal investigation or law enforcement organizations would not investigate solely to determine a service member's sexual orientation, and sexual orientation questions would not be included in personnel security questionnaires; finally, service members would be informed of DoD policy on sexual conduct during their training. This compromise policy, sometimes termed "don't ask, don't tell," issued after an agonizing and divisive public debate, did not completely satisfy any of the concerned parties.

Also on the social side, Aspin had to deal with the volatile question of servicewomen in combat. In April 1993 he announced a revised policy on the assignment of women in the armed forces: The services were to allow women to compete for assignments in combat aircraft; the Navy was to open additional ships to women and draft a proposal for Congress to remove existing legislative barriers to the assignment of women to combat vessels; and the Army and Marine Corps were to look for opportunities for women to serve in such components as field artillery and air defense. Meanwhile, Secretary of the Air Force Sheila E. Widnall became the first woman service secretary.

Development of the Defense budget for FY 1994, beginning on 1 October 1993, remained Aspin's biggest task. The budget process proved more complicated than usual, owing to Clinton's campaign pledge to reduce DoD funding and to a "bottom-up review" of the military structure ordered by Aspin shortly after he took office. The end of the Cold War and the consequent opportunity to cut military costs clearly called for the kind of reevaluation of ends and means that the bottom-up review might contribute. A Pentagon steering group chaired by Under Secretary of Defense (Acquisition and Technology) John M. Deutch and including representatives from various OSD offices, the Joint Staff, and the services conducted the review.

Because of the growing threat of regional conflicts, Aspin wanted to have a strong capability to carry out limited military operations, including peacekeeping, and to maintain "a strong peacetime presence of U.S. forces around the world." The bottom-up review report, which Aspin released in September 1993, took into account strategy formulation, force structure, weapon systems modernization, and Defense infrastructure. The report projected a reduced force structure still capable of fighting and winning two simultaneous major regional conflicts. Forces would include 10 active Army divisions; 11 carrier battle groups, 45 to 55 attack submarines, and about 345 ships; 5 active Marine brigades; and 13 active and 7 reserve Air Force fighter wings. The report also called for additional prepositioned equipment and airlift/sealift capacity, improved antiarmor and precision-guided munitions, and enhanced Army National Guard combat brigade readiness.

The conclusions of the bottom-up review influenced the development of the FY 1994 Defense budget, although detailed work on the budget had begun as soon as Aspin took office. In March 1993 Aspin introduced a FY 1994 budget proposal costing $263.4 billion, about $12 billion below current levels, and reflecting cuts in the military services similar to those later included in the bottom-up review. To some critics of high military spending, Aspin's budget plan differed little from that of the Bush administration.

In the fall of 1993 Aspin began to tell the White House that the five-year Defense budget, reflecting the results of the bottom-up review, would exceed the more than $1 trillion projected by the Clinton administration. In December 1993 he put the anticipated shortfall at no less than $50 billion, the consequence of inaccurate inflation estimates, a military pay raise, and failure to account for other Pentagon costs, including peacekeeping operations. The size of the force needed to meet the two regional wars scenario contributed to the projected budget shortfall. Furthermore, Aspin was on record as favoring the use of U.S. troops in regional conflicts, as opposed to other decisionmakers, including General Powell, chairman of the JCS. Aspin's departure from office early in 1994 left further decisions on the Defense budget to his successor. The final FY 1994 budget amounted to a little under $252 billion in total obligational authority.

Like his predecessors Carlucci and Cheney, Aspin faced the perennial issue of base closures, which could also affect the Defense budget. In March 1993 he released a plan to close an additional 31 large military installations and to shrink or consolidate 134 other sites, projecting a savings of over $3 billion a year beginning in 2000. A new Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission approved the proposal, which went into effect when Congress accepted it as a package.

The SDI program also held important budget implications. In May 1993 Aspin announced "the end of the Star Wars era," explaining that the collapse of the Soviet Union had determined the fate of SDI. He renamed the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization as the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) and established its priorities as theater and national missile defense and useful follow-on technologies. Aspin's assignment of responsibility for BMDO to the under secretary of defense (acquisition and technology) signified the downgrading of the program.

While seeking solutions to the complex budget and force structure issues, Aspin found himself beset with difficult regional problems and conflicts that demanded decisions and action. In NATO he pushed the U.S.-sponsored "Partnership for Peace" program to bring together NATO members and nonmembers for military activities, including training maneuvers, equipment sharing, search and rescue, antiterrorist efforts, environmental cleanup, and peacekeeping operations. At a meeting in Brussels in December 1993 the NATO defense ministers agreed to consider for future alliance membership those non-NATO nations that participated in the program. Russian President Boris Yeltsin warned that attempts to bring Eastern European nations into NATO would threaten his country's strategic interests and endanger hopes for the former Soviet bloc's reconciliation with the West. Yeltsin argued that enlarging NATO would reawaken old Russian concerns about encirclement and possibly weaken the cause of democratic reform.

The unstable situation in Haiti, where elected president Jean Bertrande Aristide had been ousted from office by the military in September 1991, presented another regional problem. The United States pressured the military government to restore Aristide. In July 1993, the Haitian military regime agreed to reinstate Aristide by 30 October 1993, but then refused to step down. In October, in an effort Clinton approved even though Aspin opposed it, the United States sent the USS Harlan County carrying 200 troops to Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital. Met by a hostile mob of armed Haitians, the ship turned away without attempting to undertake its mission, which the Pentagon described as an effort to professionalize the Haitian military and undertake civil assistance projects. Some observers attacked Aspin for not taking a harder stand in the administration against an action he opposed and then aborting the effort in the face of local opposition.

During Aspin's term the U.S. concern that Communist North Korea might have underway a nuclear weapon development program gave way to alarm when that country refused to allow full inspection of nuclear sites. In November 1993 North Korea demanded that the United States and South Korea cancel a planned joint training exercise as a precondition to discussions on the nuclear issue. Aspin rejected this demand and announced that the United States would suspend plans to withdraw its troops gradually from the peninsula.

In the Persian Gulf area, Iraq remained a problem. In June 1993 two U.S. Navy ships fired Tomahawk missiles against the headquarters building of Iraq's intelligence service in Baghdad in response to evidence of a plot to assassinate former President Bush during a visit to Kuwait. Aspin described the attack as a "wake up call" for Saddam Hussein. Two months later Aspin received a report on the U.S. military performance during the 1991 Gulf War, the result of a study undertaken by the House Armed Services Committee when he chaired it. The report concluded that the U.S. Central Command had greatly exaggerated damage done to Iraqi military equipment, such as tanks and naval vessels, by air strikes. Aspin also had to consider the question of health problems of U.S. service personnel who participated in the action against Iraq. He announced that a preliminary review disclosed no connection between chemical weapon agents and the reported health problems. Nevertheless, he formed a panel of outside experts to examine the issue further.

The worsening crisis in Bosnia commanded attention and demanded some kind of U.S. response. Aspin did not favor using ground forces to intervene in the civil war involving the Bosnian Muslims, Serbs, and Croats, but thought that using high technology weapons such as cruise missiles might be a feasible option. Eventually the administration decided on an airdrop of humanitarian aid, even though Aspin did not favor the plan.

Somalia turned out to be Aspin's biggest headache. A civil war involving various clans had engulfed the country since 1991. Direct U.S. involvement, begun in August 1992, provided food through a military airlift and other means to the people of Somalia. In December 1992, shortly before Aspin became secretary of defense, the United States joined a new Unified Task Force (UNITAF) to provide security as well as food relief. The United States sent 26,000 troops to Somalia to join about 13,000 others from more than 20 nations. UNITAF, operating until May 1993, restored order in Somalia and distributed food widely.

In May 1993 Operation Somalia-2 (UNOSOM-2) began in an effort to create conditions to enable the Somalis to rebuild the country. The United States cut its troops in Somalia to some 4,000 and then added 400 Army Rangers in August 1993. At that time, confronting criticism at home that the United States was getting more deeply involved in the factional violence in Somalia without a clear rationale, Aspin explained that U.S. troops would remain until order had been restored in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, progress had been made in disarming rival clans, and effective police forces were operating in the country's major cities. At the same time the United States increased its military efforts against a leading Somali warlord, Mohammed Farah Aideed.

In September General Powell asked Aspin to approve the request of the U.S. commander in Somalia for tanks and armored vehicles for his forces. Aspin turned down the request. Shortly thereafter Aideed's forces in Mogadishu killed 18 U.S. soldiers and wounded more than 75 in attacks that also resulted in the shooting down of three U.S. helicopters and the capture of one pilot. In the face of severe congressional criticism, Aspin admitted that in view of what had happened he had made a mistake, but stated that the request for armored equipment had been made within the context of delivering humanitarian aid to Somalia rather than protecting troops. In an appearance before a congressional committee to answer questions about the Somalia disaster, Aspin made an unfavorable impression and appeared weak in response to the detailed probing and criticism of his performance. The president publicly defended Aspin but made clear that the White House was not involved in the decision not to send armor reinforcements to Somalia. Several members of Congress called on Clinton to ask for Aspin's resignation.

On 15 December 1993 President Clinton announced Aspin's resignation, for personal reasons. Given the problems that Aspin encountered during his short term, most obviously the losses in Mogadishu, observers assumed that the president had asked him to step down. Speculation in the media centered on the Somalia embarrassment and on Aspin's differences with the Office of Management and Budget over how much the Defense budget should be cut. The secretary's health problems, of course, may well have also been a factor. One news magazine stated that Aspin's major handicap was "neither his famously unmilitary bearing nor his inability to discipline himself or the enormous Pentagon bureaucracy–it is his politician's instinct for the middle ground on defense issues."

Aspin continued to serve as secretary of defense until 3 February 1994, when William J. Perry took office. He then joined the faculty of Marquette University's international affairs program in Washington. In March he became a member of the Commission on Roles and Missions, and in May Clinton chose him to be chairman of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. In March 1995 he began work as chairman of still another study group, this on the Roles and Capabilities of the Intelligence Community. Shortly thereafter, on 21 May 1995, he died in Washington after a stroke.