By Bradley Graham
Throughout the controversy this year stemming from President Clinton's relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, the nation's military leaders have had little to say in public about the crisis embroiling their commander-in-chief.
Privately, some acknowledge deep concerns that the president's adulterous affair and misleading statements may cause a devastating and irrecoverable erosion in his standing among service members and further damage sagging morale in the ranks. But they have taken no steps to survey the actual impact on military opinion, and several high-ranking officials observed that, whether out of personal courtesy or some other reason, the subject has rarely come up in their own contacts with troops.
Clinton is scheduled today to hold one of his periodic meetings with the senior generals and admirals who head the military services and major regional commands. While the military chiefs hope to use the session to highlight increasingly disturbing shortfalls in personnel, training and spare parts, the air of political crisis surrounding Clinton has complicated even the Pentagon's determined efforts to try to maintain the appearance of business as usual.
As the rest of Washington is filled with talk about law and ethics, defense officials have seemed bent on holding in public to a kind of "don't ask, don't tell" policy when it comes to their views of Clinton's predicament. Asked yesterday if he still had confidence in the president following the release Friday of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen offered a curt, one-sentence reply.
"I believe the president is capable of carrying out his responsibilities as commander-in-chief, yes," Cohen said.
Cohen has maintained a strict reserve about the scandal since word of Clinton's affair with Lewinsky broke in January. As the only Republican in the Cabinet, and also a former member of the House Judiciary Committee that voted impeachment articles against President Richard M. Nixon, his views on the controversy would carry particular weight.
But throughout the winter and spring, Cohen avoided making the kind of unqualified statement of belief in Clinton's innocence that other Cabinet colleagues did. Even after after last Thursday's emotional Cabinet session, in which the president apologized for his behavior and pleaded for forgiveness, Cohen said nothing publicly.
By contrast, Clinton's behavior has been a prime topic of private discussions in military circles for months, much as it has in civilian society. Many in uniform have been quick to note that if Clinton were a service member, he certainly would be facing a court-martial on multiple charges and likely eviction from the military for violating fundamental precepts of fidelity and integrity.
But the president is not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice that governs his troops. This has led to other expressions of resentment by some service members about a double standard, feelings made all the more acute by the string of adultery and other sexual misconduct cases that have roiled the military in recent years.
"Most of us who've been in the leadership business for a long time are absolutely astounded by the current situation," said a recently retired senior military officer. "If a military leader does something that causes him to lose credibility and integrity, the guy's dead as a leader.
"It's clearly had an effect on morale in general," the retired officer said. "I think the effects on the military have been long-term and pervasive."
Clinton's relations with the military, strained initially when he ran for the presidency amid controversy over his effort to avoid service during the Vietnam War and later over his support for accepting gays in military service, had actually improved before the Lewinsky scandal, according to many inside and outside the Pentagon. He had impressed military commanders with his grasp of defense subjects and had connected easily with troops during visits to military bases.
"I thought the military had made its peace with Clinton as commander-in-chief," said Andy Bacevich, a former Army officer and now professor of international relations at Boston University. "But the sexual scandal walks us back to the earlier days of contempt."
All of which has put top defense officials in a particularly difficult position in trying to serve both the president and the troops. Rather than make any attempt at advising service members on how to regard Clinton's problems, the Pentagon's civilian and military leaders have limited their remarks in recent months to stressing how the president has shown a continued ability to deal with national security issues and focus on whatever business is at hand.
"We're precluded in some ways from talking about our superiors," said one senior military officer. "It just isn't in our culture to judge the president."
At the same time, several senior generals said they would not know quite what to say even if they were moved to try to put the current political crisis in some perspective for their troops. The military has no part to play in this political drama, they observed, and no easy solution to offer for resolving the crisis.
Whether or not Clinton decides to refer to his difficulties during his meeting today with the generals and admirals, several who plan to attend said they do not expect him to apologize as he did to the Cabinet.
"Dealing with the Cabinet was a little different than dealing with us, in that he made no assertions to us other than what he made to the public," one general said. "But I don't know. It should be a really interesting meeting."
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