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Clinton Begins to Win Over the Military

February 05, 1996|ART PINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — When President Clinton arrived at the White House in January 1993, he was the man the military loved to hate.

Derided as a draft dodger and a former war protester, Clinton compounded the ill-feeling by immediately becoming embroiled in a dispute over letting gay men and lesbians serve in the armed forces.

And to top it off, he couldn't even salute.

In the three years since then, Clinton has moved quietly but steadily to overcome the animosity. He has courted the services in ways large and small, from allowing them special latitude on their budgets to bombarding them with praise, including in his recent State of the Union address.

And he has acquired a credible--if not quite snappy--salute.

Now, as the president embarks on his reelection effort, his charm offensive appears to have paid dividends, neutralizing what had been a painful political vulnerability.

Those in the ranks might not consider Clinton a kindred soul, as they might war hero Bob Dole, Kansas' GOP senator and presidential hopeful. But many do say they find the president increasingly hard not to like.

"My personal opinion is that he makes a sincere effort to reach out to soldiers," said Army Maj. Robert Avalle, an officer in Bosnia-Herzegovina, after Clinton made a recent visit to U.S. troops to hail their peacekeeping efforts. "We think he really means it."

Some analysts pointed to the now-friendly military as perhaps the most conspicuous example of a notable Clinton talent (some would say weakness)--embracing and accommodating political opponents.

The ill-feeling among the troops "is gone," probably for good, said Don M. Snider, who teaches civil-military relations at West Point. "These days, he's doing quite well."

Clinton's rise in popularity has been gradual, but it has been much aided by his cultivation of the nation's top military officer, Army Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Shalikashvili, who replaced Gen. Colin L. Powell, has been a consistent and vocal defender of the president and the administration's policies, both in testimony before Congress and in public appearances.

In an incident last year, when Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) asserted that Clinton was not up to the job of commander in chief, Shalikashvili went out of his way to rebut the charges, personally calling newspapers to defend Clinton's leadership.

"President Clinton is our commander in chief," the general said in a statement issued by his office later. "He has and will continue to have the loyalty and full support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff." Shalikashvili's support has been so fervent that some critics have questioned whether he was exceeding the requirements of professional loyalty.

Clinton's choice for defense secretary, the serious and methodical William J. Perry, also has increased the military's comfort level. Perry's predecessor, the late Les Aspin, was regarded as a defense intellectual but someone who drove military leaders up the wall with his professorial musings and reluctance to decide issues swiftly.

Clinton has further cultivated goodwill by reaching out to the services for expertise in other areas. He used his State of the Union message--which opened with "I want to begin by saying [thank you] to our men and women in uniform"--to celebrate his appointment of Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey as the nation's new drug czar, the first military officer to hold the post.

The personal diplomacy has been complemented by deep pockets. At a time when many civilian departments are getting their budgets slashed, the military's was increased.

The effect of better relations has been obvious as Clinton relishes the opportunity to visit troops deployed in high-profile missions, and they respond almost warmly to his internationally televised praise.

"It's the kind of thing where he's our commander in chief, and that says it all," said Army Col. Michael Scaparrotti, a paratroop officer on duty in Bosnia.

Clinton was ready to visit the U.S. troops in Bosnia almost as soon as the mission began in December, but field commanders had to beg for a delay on grounds that they had not finished unpacking.

That is quite a contrast to several years ago, when Clinton aides feared repeats of the 1993 visit to the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, in which officers and crew members openly mocked the president.

To be sure, Clinton still has his detractors inside the armed services. Many of those in uniform hold a more conservative political philosophy than he does. And some refuse to forgive him for avoiding military service during the Vietnam War.

"What gives him the right to send us here?" said Army Sgt. Lee Colgrove, now on duty in Bosnia. "He was never in the Army. He doesn't know what it's like to waddle in this stuff for 30 days at a time."

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